Building on history

Restaurant is set to be the latest tenant in the Old Corner Bookstore building, a site that has mirrored Boston’s commerce and culture

Chipotle Mexican Grill plans to open later this year in Boston’s historic Old Corner Bookstore at School and Washington streets. Chipotle Mexican Grill plans to open later this year in Boston’s historic Old Corner Bookstore at School and Washington streets. (Globe Staff File/ 1997)
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / July 13, 2011

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Boston’s oldest commercial building is about to become home to one of the nation’s fastest-growing food chains.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has signed a lease to occupy a vacant storefront in the Old Corner Bookstore at School and Washington streets, a 1718 building whose varied uses offer a unique window on the history of Boston’s commerce and culture.

The building was once the home of Puritan dissident Anne Hutchinson, who was expelled from Massachusetts in 1638 for heresy; in the 1830s, it became the headquarters of Ticknor & Fields, the publisher of the first editions of “The Scarlet Letter,’’ “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’’ “Walden,’’ and many other celebrated works.

In later years its tenants were more run-of-the-mill retailers; at one point it was a lunch counter, then a men’s clothing store, and in the 1950s it hosted City Pizza, whose giant sign advertised “sliced crispy pizza’’ for 15 cents.

“Over its full history, the building has had many different uses that speak to how the city has changed over the years,’’ said Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit that bought the Old Corner Bookstore to restore it in 1960. The store is part of a five-building complex owned by the organization, which uses the leasing proceeds to preserve other culturally significant structures across the city.

Chipotle, which features gourmet burritos and other Mexican food items, is planning to open its restaurant by the end of the year - part of a nationwide expansion that could add up to 145 new outlets. The chain operates 20 restaurants in Massachusetts, and the School Street location will be its second outlet in Boston; the other is at 101 Summer St. near South Station.

The Boston Landmarks Commission approved signs for Chipotle in April. The commission is considering designating the building a landmark, which would require extra review for any new changes to its exterior.

The building’s heyday was in the mid-19th century, when the presence of Ticknor & Fields made the property a gathering place for authors such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The publisher churned out the first editions of many of their most celebrated works.

The presses also printed the Atlantic Monthly magazine, and the building itself anchored a corner of the city’s old Newspaper Row, on Washington Street, which The Boston Globe, the now-defunct Boston Post, and other publications called home.

The Old Corner Bookstore remained occupied by publishers and booksellers until the 20th century, when its first-floor tenants began to reflect the times. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was home to a men’s clothing store; in the 1940s, shops sold cigars and jewelry; and City Pizza arrived in the ’50s, when the building fell into disrepair and was covered by huge billboards.

In 1960, the building became the first preservation project of Historic Boston, which saved it from demolition. The organization received funding for the restoration from The Boston Globe, which leased several floors for office space. In 1997, the paper opened a store on the site to sell reprints and other memorabilia.

“If I could wave a magic wand and create the perfect tenant for the building, it would be a bookstore or a publisher,’’ Kottaridis said. She said, however, that her organization’s mission is not to freeze historic buildings in time but to allow for their continued public use while commemorating the past.

Her group currently occupies office space above the bookstore but next month will relocate to the Eustis Street Fire House in Roxbury, the city’s oldest remaining fire structure. Historic Boston spent $2 million renovating that 1859 building.

As much as she looks forward to the new site, Kottaridis said she will miss her spot in downtown Boston, where her organization still gets visitors randomly wandering into its offices to learn about its literary past.

“Occasionally, we will get people who come right up the stairs looking for the Old Corner Bookstore,’’ she said. “Hopefully, people will remember the great things that happened here.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story incorrectly reported the number of Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in Boston. There are two locations in the city.