All along, it was supposed to be another cookie-cutter hotel/apartment complex, on the site of the Howard Johnson in the Fenway. Raze the squat and outdated motel, and then build as high as possible to make the most money.
It’s a formula being repeated from the Back Bay to the Seaport District. High-end is no longer high enough. The latest example: A second Four Seasons will anchor a 60-story tower near the Christian Science Plaza.
But for developer Steve Samuels, all that opulence was too mundane.
“Let’s not tear down the Howard Johnson,” he texted business partner Robin Brown.
To which Brown responded, as calmly as he could: “What?”
Samuels had a vision for how they could take advantage of the memories connected to the HoJo. His thinking: Amid a sea of new towers, including some he built, preserving the old 94-room motel would add character to one of Boston’s hottest new neighborhoods.
Born was The Verb, an anti-chain establishment that would pay homage to Fenway/Kenmore Square’s raucous rock club scene of the ’70s and ’80s. The area was, at one time, home to joints such as the Boston Tea Party, where you could see the biggest acts before they got too big — Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, J. Geils Band, The Who. Later, the soon-to-be-famous Police would take to the rickety stage of The Rat, known for its malfunctioning bathrooms, graffiti-covered walls, beer-soaked floors, and yes, live rats. The club also hosted hundreds of homegrown bands including The Cars.
“It’s all coming back,” Samuels said at a recent walk-through at the motel, slated to open next month. “If you didn’t live through it, you’ll like it.”
Brown, former general manager of the Four Seasons and mastermind behind Boston’s luxurious Mandarin Oriental, didn’t exactly sign up for this kind of challenge. He was accustomed to the top of Boston’s hotel world, not the bottom. HoJo’s, he likes to remind everyone, was No. 74 on TripAdvisor’s ranking of places to stay.
Samuels and his partners, which include Weiner Ventures, have spent the past seven months and well over $10 million overhauling the HoJo on Boylston Street. Each room features custom furniture and cheeky touches such as ironing board covers that read “Some Like it Hot.” The old Hong Kong Cafe that was inside HoJo’s is no more. A new restaurant will open in the fall.
In the pricey Boston hotel market, HoJo’s was a popular alternative with average rates around $140 a night. Prices at The Verb — whose name comes from the audio term reverb — will hover in the mid-$200s.
By Brown’s standards, that’s down market, but he is enjoying the lower altitude.
“It’s a great relief,” he said. “I am having a lot more fun.”
The easy thing to do would have been to give this motel, built as the Fenway Motor Lodge in 1959, a baseball theme. It sits in the shadow of Fenway Park, after all. Brown and Samuels knew they wanted to play off the kitschiness of a mid-century motel, reactivating the pool in the courtyard and stocking each room with typewriters bought off eBay.
But something was missing, and Samuels found it in Cleveland. While visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, he spotted a 1972 Randy Newman song written on Fenway Motor stationery. “This is a message,” the developer thought to himself.
No kidding. Perhaps from the almighty himself. Newman’s “God’s Song” is considered one of his masterpieces, a brilliant work of satire released long before the songwriter went all commercial on us.
Now, this wasn’t going to be a Hard Rock, a brand of rock-and-roll nostalgia that is as authentic as Milli Vanilli. So Samuels reached out to friend Stephen Mindich, the ex-publisher of the Boston Phoenix, to help him unpack the history of Fenway’s music scene. Imagine — old Phoenix front pages could be used as artwork on the walls to help tell the story.
“I thought it was fabulous — and especially moving,” said Mindich, who had to abruptly shutter the alternative weekly last year after nearly half a century.
Mindich brought in archivist David Bieber, another old hand from the Phoenix and a WBCN radio alum. Bieber said he has collected “hundreds of thousands” of pop cultural items, the bulk of them stored in climate-controlled warehouses. In other words, stuff itching to see the light of day.
You’ll find memorabilia on the walls of The Verb that include a promo photo of eccentric Modern Lovers leader Jonathan Richman, backstage passes from the J. Geils Band, and torn $4.50 ticket stubs to a Blondie show at the Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue, one of the few original rock clubs still open.
Through Phoenix covers in the rooms, guests will get a cultural panorama of life in Boston dating to the ’60s. They’ll also see a grittier Fenway/Kenmore area, a place where Burger King and the Pizza Pad were considered gourmet restaurants, and punks and Sox fans sometimes brawled on the sidewalks. Today, you can shop at REI and West Elm, and you can grab sushi at Basho Japanese Brasserie and enjoy the raw bar at Island Creek Oyster, housed virtually on the same site as The Rathskeller, The Rat’s formal name.
The Fenway/Kenmore music scene on Lansdowne Street is not as loud and freewheeling as it once was. The scene has gone corporate with the House of Blues, and safe-bet baby-boomer favorites such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Paul McCartney play at Fenway Park.
But The Verb, even with its sanitized version of the old punk scene, reminds us the neighborhood was once as much about bass lines as baseball.