Boston’s Un-Common Comfort Station

2023 was a difficult year filled with turmoil in politics, religion, climate, health care and, of course, world peace. In Boston parlance, it scored as a “wicked pissah” of a year.

(In Boston this term is descriptive and is not considered cursing.)

A Wicked Pissah

For non-Bostonians, wicked pissah means something exceptional or truly remarkable It may also be used in a sarcastic way to describe something as truly awesome. (See above)

Given that, I have decided to end 2023 with a post about a “pissah” of a building. Actually, I first wrote about this building years ago in an article for the Atlas Obscura website. Since then, I have researched, visited, and written about many other buildings in Boston without revisiting the men’s comfort station on Boston Common. The time has come to change that.

Research and Replication

Men's Comfort Station, Boston Common, The Earl of Sandwich, comfort station

The abandoned comfort station

Writing the article for Atlas Obscura meant doing a fair amount of research on a small and, until recently, overlooked building that stood abandoned on Boston Common for many years.

My research did no turn up the architect who designed it — probably whoever was Boston’s City Architect at that time.

I found more sources than I expected, given its size and lack of historical importance. Oddly enough, however, I kept encountering the exact same description for this building wherever I turned. Clearly, someone had written it up first and then all subsequent writers had simply copied his words.

I had no desire to follow suit, especially because I knew the first writer had gotten the construction date wrong. To fix this, I had to come at the research from a different perspective. I did so—and struck paydirt.

So, here’s the story:

The Men’s Comfort Station

Let’s start with identifying which of the nine historic buildings on Boston Common I’m describing. The octagonal structure, made of cast stone over terra cotta, is located near the center of the Common, close to athletic fields, tennis courts, and the Parkman Bandstand.

Men's Comfort Station, Map, Boston Common, The Earl of Sandwich

The compact structure (660 square feet) went up in 1916 to provide a place for the men of Boston to relieve themselves in privacy. To be honest, it was likely also intended to discourage them from urinating publicly on walls, in alleys, against trees, Into the Frog Pond, and in other public locations. This practice not only defaced the city, but it would also have presented an affront to nearby ladies. Also, this new convenience was a step toward improving Boston’s public sanitation.

(I have often wondered how much better the world’s cities would look and smell if men couldn’t urinate standing up. But I digress.)

Ignored and Abandoned

The comfort station fulfilled its primary function until the 1970s, when the city abandoned the building and left it to crumble behind an iron fence. Presumably, male Bostonians now had access to modern conveniences and no longer needed a public place.

Men's Comfort Station, Boston Common, The Earl of Sandwich, Wikimedia, comfort station

The Comfort Station in disrepair

As it fell into decrepitude, a structure once nicknamed the “Pink Palace” because of its colored masonry, began to look more like a tomb. Closed and shadowed, it would have seemed more at home in the nearby Central Burying Ground.

In 2009, the city commissioned an engineering report, which stated:

“The current condition of the building is very poor. The glass and copper roof has failed, the entry door is severely damaged, and the interior finishes are damaged beyond repair.’’

This document —“Request for Expressions of Interest: Adaptive Reuse of the Men’s Comfort Station, Boston Common,”— appears to be the source of the description that was parroted in so many other places.

The Earl of Sandwich to the Rescue

Things did not look good for the old comfort station. The report continued: ” The interior of the structure requires a full renovation.”  And that was going to cost money.

Fortunately, in 2011 an unexpected company came to its rescue. The Earl of Sandwich, a national chain located in Orlando, Florida, spent over a million dollars renovating the structure.

The Boston Landmarks Commission reviewed all of the company’s proposed changes before construction began, as work was required on both the interior and exterior.

(It’s interesting to note how solicitous the city was about the comfort station’s renovation after leaving it to decay in full view for decades in America’s oldest public park.)

Landscape Limitations

To be fair, the “Request for Expressions of Interest,” specified the limitations imposed by the historic site:

“. . .  restrictions may include: no parking, no rerouting of existing paths, no significant addition of impervious area, no removal of existing trees, no permanent dumpster facilities, no fixed year-round outdoor seating, and preservation of the existing metal fence (though reconfiguration may be possible).”

The restaurant chain renovated the interior of the building while maintaining the original appearance of its historic facade. Repairs included clerestory windows and the roof’s copper flashing. A new 24-faceted copper roof follows the form of the original skylight. The company replicated both the original roof monitor and ventilator in copper. They also added steps, a platform for customers, and outdoor seating on a patio.

The Comfort Station Today

Men's Comfort Station, Boston Common, Wikimedia

The Earl of Sandwich

Today, the Earl of Sandwich provides sustenance for visitors to Boston Common, whether they are playing tennis or softball, attending a concert, watching Shakespeare on the Common, taking a walking tour, or simply strolling through.

I certainly hope that the shop is making money because the decrepit old comfort station is now a clean and pleasant place with umbrellas and tables outside. I doubt that even a tiny fraction of those who dine there know the building’s original function.

And that works just fine. In the words of another famous Bostonian, “Bon appetit!”