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Fenway’s changing profile to claim landmark HoJo’s

Once a landmark, now a fossil, hotel makes room for new development

A recent visit to the Howard Johnson Inn on Boylston Street for owner Bob Sage included a chat with manager Paul Dunleavy, who is preparing the Fenway landmark for closing at the end of the month.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

A recent visit to the Howard Johnson Inn on Boylston Street for owner Bob Sage included a chat with manager Paul Dunleavy, who is preparing the Fenway landmark for closing at the end of the month.

The now-fading motor lodge was built decades ago in the shadows of Fenway Park, the vision of a developer who wanted to build something different amid the gas stations and car dealerships that lined Boylston Street.

Bob Sage opened the Fenway Motor Lodge in 1959 as one of the city’s first new hotels after World War II. Sports stars and famous entertainers were regulars in its heyday, and single rooms went for $10.50 a night. Eventually, Sage struck up a partnership with Howard Johnson, then a rapidly expanding national chain.

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But in recent years, the Howard Johnson Inn at 1271 Boylston St. has become a fossil surrounded by modern apartments and restaurants. Now, with a sale in the works, the landmark HoJo’s will soon be gone, finally clearing the way for development ambitions that have long swirled around the property.

Sage, 87, intends to close a sale by year’s end to Steve Samuels and Adam Weiner, developers who have already brought sleek new residential buildings and retail storefronts to the Fenway section.

Plans for the property have not been finalized, although the developers previously floated a proposal for a 12-story hotel and residential building on the 1.5-acre site. A spokeswoman for the developers said details will be released early next year.

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City Councilor Michael Ross said he is pleased to see a deal come together to redevelop the HoJo’s property, which to many people has lingered like a stubborn root in the rapidly changing neighborhood.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

The updated lobby at the Howard Johnson Inn in Boston’s Fenway section offers amodern decor for guests, but the Boylston Street landmark, built in 1959, is slated to close by year’s end to make way for new developments.

“We’ve been talking about HoJo’s for a long time now,” he said. “I think the development of recent years shows that vibrant, neighborhood-scale growth can occur in this city if the right zoning discussions take place.”

‘We’ve been talking about HoJo’s for a long time now.’

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For Sage, the moment is bittersweet.

“This was like my first child,” he recalled on a recent afternoon, sipping pineapple juice in the hotel’s Hong Kong restaurant. “It was the first hotel I built, and we were very successful. We had 90 percent occupancy on an annual basis.”

He vividly remembers the days when it was popular with Red Sox players, and hosted entertainers such as Connie Francis, Jerry Vale, and Tony Bennett. He recalled one evening when Bennett took over the cocktail lounge for a two-hour impromptu performance.

“It was what they did back then,” he said. “I got a lot of people in here from Columbia Records. They were trying to promote their records.”

But as a businessman, Sage said, he knows the hotel’s time has passed and Boylston Street is seeing the kind of sweeping change that he used to advocate as a developer.

“I think it’s very good,” he said of the rapid-fire building activity. “Boston and this street and all the building going on — it’s starting to feel like downtown New York or Chicago. Boston is a very dynamic city.”

Samuels and Weiner have already redeveloped much of Boylston Street. They are now building a mixed-use complex at Boylston and Kilmarnock streets that will include offices, residences and a Target store.

Samuels also plans to expand Landmark Center with the city’s first Wegmans supermarket, as well as additional stores, offices, and 550 residences. He recently won approval to build a 22-story residential and retail building at Boylston and Brookline Avenue. Another developer, the Abbey Group, is building more than 320 residences on the site of a former McDonald’s.

The new buildings will dwarf the low-rise Howard Johnson Inn, which has been the focus of redevelopment discussions for several years. Sage considered building a Hilton Garden Inn on the site, but, he said, “I decided it wasn’t worth that kind of money at this stage in my life.”

He also developed motor lodges on Commonwealth Avenue and in Revere. In the early 1980s, Sage helped to develop the Back Bay Hilton, selling the property in 1984. The Boylston Street HoJo’s is the last property in his portfolio.

Ross credits Sage with helping to lay the foundation for the bustling neighborhood rising around his old hotel. “It’s always interesting to talk to developers who invested in Boston when it wasn’t an obvious place to invest,” he said. “You have a group of people who really helped to build this city, and I’d put Bob Sage in that category.”

As he contemplated the hotel’s sale, Sage said he’s not sure what he’ll do next. He’d like to spend a little more time in Florida, but he’s not interested in a tropical retirement. He said he misses the action of the hotel business — getting jobs for people, meeting guests, and dealing with politicians, vendors and even the periods of crisis.

“Being in business for 54 years, you go through a lot,” he said. “In the ’70s, people couldn’t even get gas, but we always kept our head above water.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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