As a lifelong bicyclist and Dorchester native who had traveled Columbia Road thousands of times, Noah Hicks De Amor thought he knew the landscape cold. But he never once noticed the little building wedged between the Colonial cemetery and the janitorial supply shop near Uphams Corner, boarded up longer than he’d been alive.
Not until the community nonprofit helping him scout a site for a cafe, affordable bike shop, and bicycle-repair school told him they’d found the perfect place — the abandoned “comfort station” at 611 Columbia Road.
The what? De Amor was hardly alone in failing to notice the squat stucco building with the roof shedding clay tiles, though few who had could even say why or how it got there — a Spanish Mission-style structure tucked into urban Uphams Corner, with no name and no obvious door, like a shuttered portal to 19th-century Santa Fe.
Now, three years after De Amor raced over on his bike and blinked in disbelief — they were right, it was perfect; how had he never seen this? — the 31-year-old Bowdoin-Geneva native and his nonprofit partners are poised to breathe vibrant life into a relic from the City Beautiful movement. Though that progressive era may be better known for conferring stylish parks, museums, and libraries onto newly crowded cities a century ago, it also yielded some public restrooms with panache, though few have survived.
Which is part of why the plan for the comfort station recently landed on a top 25 list of urban preservation projects nationwide, which doubles as an online “Vote Your Main Street” contest for a share of $2 million in grants, in balloting that ends Tuesday night.
The money could close a gap and help spur the start of construction for the planned Sip & Spoke Bike Kitchen as early as the spring, with a goal of finishing next fall, said De Amor and Kathy Kottaridis, executive director of Historic Boston Inc., a nonprofit that won the bid to buy the comfort station from the city for a nominal fee while managing the complexity and expense of historic renovation and renting to De Amor on a lease-to-own basis.
De Amor, who worked social-service jobs at schools and shelters in his early 20s while restoring and selling broken bicycles on the side to make extra money, started the Bowdoin Bike School about five years ago in a local park, teaching others to fix bikes in a community where cycling can be as much about necessity as lifestyle choice.
That pop-up’s popularity spawned a brick-and-mortar business near Codman Square he now runs with his husband, a self-described “pop and pop” operation in which profit is secondary to community mission —
And it propelled De Amor to begin planning more branches across Dorchester, including a flagship in a high-traffic area that could double as an inviting sidewalk cafe — not “a bunch of people drinking fancy coffee and picking out bikes in a fortress,” De Amor said, but affordable, high-quality fare amid a landscape of fast-food choices.
The American City Coalition, a Roxbury-based nonprofit, helped him refine the plan and find a location, identifying the comfort station when the city put out a bid for proposals in 2014.
Pedaling over to see it, De Amor couldn’t believe he’d never noticed it. “Your eye and your mind just kind of gets trained to ignore something that was ugly, and there was so much blight in the community,” especially growing up in the 1990s, he said.
“I was kicking myself a little bit,” he said. But while falling in love with the tiled roof and wide sidewalk, “I just saw the possibilities.”
The Roxbury nonprofit brought in a design firm and connected De Amor with Historic Boston, which specializes in challenging preservation projects that otherwise deter private developers.
Working with the neighborhood, the group emerged as community favorite in the bidding process — the runners-up included proposals for a day care and office space — and launched a campaign to amass the $1 million needed through fund-raising, grants, and tax credits.
They have nearly hit that mark, Kottaridis said — but construction costs everywhere have soared, pushing the tab to $1.4 million.
Then they got picked for the Main Street contest, Kottaridis said, an unexpected honor that could bring needed funding and publicity to help close the gap.
The comfort station — paired here with a longer-term restoration plan by the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation for a four-story building from the same era across the street — is the only New England entry, competing with the likes of the oldest fire house in the Southwest, the 42-foot marquee of Birmingham’s signature theater, and a West Hollywood trolley-car cafe where Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable dined.
Making it this far earned all 25 projects $20,000 apiece already, in a contest organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and National Geographic, and underwritten by American Express. After six decades of promoting the preservation of subtly significant cultural sites as well as obviously historic ones, the National Trust is seeking new ways to inject buzz into a world of grant-writing and tax credits, with daily online voting and a hashtag campaign.
When the winners are announced Thursday, the top 10 will receive another $148,000 each, while two runners-up will get $10,000 apiece for making the most dramatic week-to-week climbs in the rankings, according to the National Trust.
Rising from the back of the pack to 15th by Monday, the Uphams Corner group has emerged as one of the rapid climbers, with a shot still at the top 10, through word-of-mouth and a social-media push among neighborhood residents, the wider bicycling community, and fans of city history.
At a mere 1,200 square feet, the comfort station is a link to the streetcar age — several lines converged nearby, yielding plenty of foot traffic in need of the occasional restroom — and the progressive reform period of a century ago.
Constructed in 1912-13 at a cost of nearly $11,000, it was one of five architect-designed comfort or “convenience stations” planned that year by Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald’s administration, each in a different style.
In the decades since it was abandoned, it has been an eyesore to some, invisible to others. But “when this thing is restored and buffed up,” Kottaridis said, walking around it the other day, “it’s just going to be beautiful; it’s going to be a little palace.”