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Mementos of a neighborhood

Time capsule found on Roxbury construction site

Senator Dianne Wilkerson (above, left), Mayor Thomas M. Menino (middle), and Representative Byron Rushing helped unveil the contents of a 1922 time capsule found on a Dudley Square construction site. Senator Dianne Wilkerson (above, left), Mayor Thomas M. Menino (middle), and Representative Byron Rushing helped unveil the contents of a 1922 time capsule found on a Dudley Square construction site. (Globe Staff Photo / George Rizer)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher Baxter
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2008

Only the frame of Ferdinand's furniture shop in Dudley Square remains 86 years after its namesake secreted a small time capsule behind the cornerstone of the Roxbury institution.

On June 24, 1922, Frank Ferdinand celebrated the groundbreaking of an eight-story annex to his booming business by tucking a few keepsakes into a copper box: two newspapers from the week, an article on Ferdinand's life, a proof of a furniture advertisement, a list of the shop's employees, and typed details of the dedication ceremony, including a speech made by the master of ceremonies, the Rev. Arthur T. Brooks.

The yellowed papers, discovered by contractors working at the site, were uncovered yesterday at the historic Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury. Wearing white gloves, Mayor Thomas M. Menino displayed the items for about 50 gathered residents.

"I bought a table from Ferdinand's in the 1950s, and I still use it," Lorraine Khan-Broy, a longtime Roxbury resident, told the mayor during the event.

She paid $98 for a mahogany coffee table and about $140 for an upholstered club chair, she said.

The advertisement Ferdinand included in the time capsule proclaimed the "final week of an unusual stock reducing sale," touting an extra large, overstuffed living room set for $150. Shoppers could also buy a wooden poster bed for $7.25.

Known commonly as the Blue Store for its attention-grabbing blue exterior, Ferdinand's was one of many thriving, white-owned retail shops in the square. Representative Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society, said integration came to the area only after World War II.

"No one discriminated against black people buying," Rushing said. "They discriminated against them working."

Irish and Italians dominated Roxbury at the time, Rushing said, with a scattering of other white ethnicities and a small black population relocated from Boston's West End. The black community continued to grow through World War II and became the majority later, he said.

"Things have changed a lot," said Khan-Broy, who recalled trolley bells tolling in the street as she shopped every week for the family's groceries. "We used to call it going uptown then," she said. "When you were going uptown, you were going somewhere."

According to one of the newspaper clippings, Mayor James Michael Curley was present at the ceremony and praised Ferdinand as a progressive businessman whom Boston needed. Festivities that day also included a band playing for 10 minutes and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "My Country, Tis of Thee," the papers said.

Ferdinand's grew from a small two-story building opened in 1869 to become the anchor of retail business in the square, according to a December 1922 article in The Boston Daily Globe. The story described Ferdinand as "a New Englander of the old stock, and a lifelong booster for Boston." At the height of his success, Ferdinand expanded the business to include the annex, called innovative in the article for its display windows and entrance on an elevated train station platform.

Business never fully recovered for Ferdinand after the Great Depression, Rushing said. After the rapid pace of growth, the Blue Store slowly contracted through the 1950s until finally closing a decade later, he said.

Following years of unsuccessful redevelopment efforts, Menino pledged in 2004 to revive the dilapidated buildings, separated into the Ferdinand and Guscott buildings after a connecting structure was demolished around 1992. Ferdinand's historic facade will be preserved, but crews will demolish the remaining brick structures to make room for a new municipal office building, the mayor's office said.

A new time capsule will be placed inside the modern building, Menino said, and the contents of the original box have been donated to the historical society.

Christopher Baxter can be reached at cbaxter@globe.com.

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