Thursday, April 10, 2008

Refectory Hill

"We serve Weitz Frankfurters...they're TOASTED...taste the difference!" taunts a sign in the Refectory in Franklin Park. Frankfurters, hot dogs, cracker jacks, popcorn, and balloons are a special part of people's memories in Franklin Park. Suzanne Monk of Jamaica Plain remembers taking the MTA with her father to Franklin Park on Sundays and indulging in treats from the infamous building. Debbie Rodgers, who grew up in South Boston and now works at the Franklin Park Zoo, remembers the same things. Whether it was 1930 or 1960, the Refectory and concessions in Franklin Park remain part of living memories.

Refectory Hill was part of Frederick Law Olmsted's 1886 General Plan for Franklin Park. He called for a place where "refreshments [would] be served principally out of doors under a large pergola or vine clad trellis, upon a terrace formed in the manner of the Playstead Overlook. Horse Sheds on the east side. Extended sylvan prospects from the terrace." The building itself would not come to fruition for ten years later. Construction plans are first mentioned in the 1894 Report of the Boston Park Commissioners. Designed by the firm of Hartwell and Richardson (no familial relationship with HH Richardson, a famous Boston architecht and close friend and associate of Olmsted), the Refectory opened with great fanfare on July 4, 1896. The first floor was open and airy and the terrace provided a view that stretched beyond the Arnold Arboretum. While the Playstead was for games and the Country Park was for the meandering sheep, the Refectory was the place to see and be seen in its early years.

Time would soon prove otherwise. Within ten years, the grand scale of the building could not be supported and it was turned into a branch of the Boston Public Library. It's open air first floor was closed in and it was a successful, temporary neighborhood branch. Upon it's closure as a library, the operations went out to bid to reopen the venue as a restaurant and concession stand. A local Catholic group asked the city of Boston if they would consider turning over the building for a three-year period as a day-home for consumptive children. It was probably believed that they could benefit from the open space both within the Refectory in Franklin Park in warm weather.

In 1928, the Burke family bid to open the Refectory as a concession stand once again. Many neighbors were fearful of the hospital-like setting of the children's home and it proved to be an unsuccessful venture. The Burke's, on the other hand, proved to be what the Refectory would need for the next 44 years. The Refectory was the headquarters for all concessions and refreshments in Franklin Park and the Zoo. The Refectory building itself was home to gala affairs, political meetings, ladies who lunched, and gentlemen who enjoyed a beer after a game of golf. It was a place to get a roasted hot dog and a cold cola on a hot summer day. It was a place to enjoy a terrace table under the shade of an umbrella, overlooking the serene Country Park. It was the place to rent a toboggan in the cold, harsh days of winter to take to the tracks on Schoolmaster Hill. It was the hub of activity for the Burke family as they dispatched balloons on sticks, Cracker Jacks, Mallomars, and ice cream to the Zoo and beer, popcorn, and peanuts to the ninth hole stand on the golf course.

Young men wore strapping white uniforms and long white aprons with a small button to signify who they were. John Dooley served Schlitzes. From 1966 until the official closing of the Refectory in 1972, you could enjoy a fresh baked pizza. You could pay a dime to use the "public" restrooms. You could buy a strip of drink tickets to provide you with icy refreshments all day.

Unfortunately, fear and neglect changed the face of Franklin Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Refectory, after a small contingency tried to save the historic structure, was razed in 1972. The Burke's sold off their goods at auction and focused on their other Jamaica Plain landmark--Doyle's Cafe. Jerry Burke recalls the fear and tension of working in Franklin Park in 1967. While standing with a group a concessionaires at the end of a long, hot night, one of them looked up to the rafters and stated, "There is a lot of wood in here, Mr. Burke. There is a lot of damage that my people could do here." Much of the damage of Franklin Park still exists today as a reputation that perpetuates this fear and this tension.

The Refectory is a lesson. It is a lesson of an Olmstedian legacy gone awry. It is a story of neglect by a municipality. It is a story of fear. It is a building that is gone, though the memories are anything but gone. When you look at the pictures, I hope you can smell the hot dogs or hear the shouts of children. I hope you can picture a gala affair on October 31, 1934, hosted by the Burkes. I hope that you can picture a young man in his white apron handing out freshly popped popcorn or that you can hear the lifelong residents and golfers sharing some laughs over a cold Pickwick. I hope that if you are like me, and never had the chance to see this glorious building, that you feel like you did. Or if you remember the sights and smells, I hope that this brings some of it back for you.

**A very special thank you to Jerry Burke for the photographs and stories**