For more than a century, the vast brick warehouse that looms like a castle over Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge has been a vault of memories.
For one man, it was a place to store a stupendous wine collection, amassed during college days, and eventually forgotten. For others, it was somewhere to put a car, be it a new-model Mercedes or an ancient truck, undrivable with flat tires. And for a few, it was a hideaway, a place to practice the piano, or even set up an office and work, away from it all.
Now Metropolitan Storage is closing, to be converted into dorms by its owner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And its renters are making their last pilgrimages to the corner of Mass. Ave. and Vassar Street to empty their units and take stock of what’s inside.
“It’s like a sort of shrine,” said Jonathan Richmond, who for more than 20 years has kept a small unit to store research material for his MIT doctoral thesis on light rail in Los Angeles.
“It’s a place where you keep the things you can’t possibly part with.”
The closing of Metropolitan Storage is a sign of the times in booming Cambridge, where housing is in short supply and MIT is under pressure to add more for students. It’s also the end of an era; the place opened in 1894, was fully built out by 1912, and its nearly 1,500 units — dark cells with steel doors that bring to mind an old prison — have been in use ever since.
Many store the ordinary collections of life. Renters use them for stuff they can’t squeeze into small apartments. MIT students stash belongings over the summer. A few homeless people rent units to keep their possessions safe and dry.
Some are more elaborate.
Jourdan Arpelle and her husband rented four, to hold the things they brought when they moved to Cambridge in 2012. One unit they converted into a giant walk-in closet, with track lighting and Elfa shelving up to the 10-foot ceiling. Another served as a photo studio. A third Arpelle described as their “ski lodge,” holding winter clothes and cross-country skis on a rack by the door, in easy reach for a snowy day swish along the Charles.
They won’t be able to do that at their new storage space in Everett. And moving out was no small task. Arpelle spent three weeks preparing for the move, photographing racks of clothes, thousands of garments in all.
“As ex-New Yorkers, we need every single thing in here,” she said with a chuckle.
Behind a big sliding door on the first floor there’s something you don’t often see in a storage unit: an office, fully built out with a couch, electricity and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It belongs to Steve Columbia, a consultant who lives in Charlestown and “found it very distracting to work at home.”
Columbia already had a storage unit at Metropolitan and often has meetings in Cambridge. So a few years ago, when a big unit opened up, he asked Mizner about installing an office. Now he meets clients there, though Columbia admits he gets some funny looks.
“People look at me as if I’m insane. Then when you slide that door open there’s an impact,” he said. “There is a certain ‘wow’ factor.”
That’s not something Columbia can take with him. He can store his stuff at a new storage facility, Columbia said, but “the idea of an office essentially dies with Metropolitan.”
Others have had a place at Metropolitan Storage for so long that they’ve forgotten what’s inside. Owner Neal Mizner tells of a man from Hong Kong — a student at MIT in the late 1970s — who came back this summer for the first time in about 20 years. Whatever was inside had slipped from his memory.
“It’d been so long,” Mizner said. “He’d simply forgotten what was there.”
So together they opened it up. Inside sat hundreds of bottles of wine. But he hadn’t stored them properly, and most had turned. So the man dumped the bad stuff, drank a few of the best, and sent what he could back home.
For many longtime customers, especially the roughly 40 percent who live out of town, Metropolitan Storage provides a tangible link to a different time in their lives, Mizner said. Many have some connection to MIT, and keeping a toehold in Cambridge is a way to remember their time there.
“People have a very unique attachment to this building,” Mizner said.
With two-foot-thick stone walls, Metropolitan Storage is fireproof and cool, a good place to store art. And some of Boston’s finest museums and collectors have rented units here.
Those brick walls and high vaulted ceilings also make for good acoustics, so much so that more than one musician has used a storage cell for practice space over the years. The saxophone notes bouncing down the hallways and the eclectic mix of people filtering through them made the warehouse a fun place to stop by, said Barbara Dahill.
“We’ll never find another place like this,” she said, while dismantling her unit with a friend recently. “Ever.”
Some are letting go of more than just a closet as they move out. Artist Linda DeHart has used Metropolitan to store large pieces of wood left over from old projects, the sort of things she’d hoped would eventually turn into new projects she hadn’t yet dreamed up.
Now she’s 76, and the time for new projects is growing shorter. So she’s giving those pieces to younger artists, in the hope that they’ll make something with them instead. As she and two friends loaded a few of her smaller items into a van on recent morning, she reflected on what she’s letting go, and why.
“I’m an artist, a creative person. A creative person sees the potential in anything,” DeHart said. “But why am I holding on to this stuff?”