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A new beginning

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After years of deterioration, failed hopes and forgotten promises, the Woolworth Building in the heart of Watertown’s Public Square started a new life last week when construction began on converting the vacant retail and office building into 50 apartments.

For generations, Woolworth’s downtown was the center of shopping activity, especially in the weeks before Christmas when young and old would ride a city bus to the Square and peruse the counters of the iconic five-and-dime store. Children were attracted by what seemed to be rows and rows of penny candy.

The aquariums filled with gold fish and other tropical species and the display areas for tiny turtles always led to youngsters pleading with their mother or grandfather to buy a pet to take home. The lunch counter attracted hundreds of hungry shoppers looking for a grilled cheese sandwich or a milkshake.

Those aspects of retail life atrophied as the predecessors of today’s big box stores began to dominate local communities with their large facilities facing massive parking lots. Woolworth’s, whose founder Frank W. Woolworth nurtured his five-and-dime concept in the old Moore’s store on the Square, became a worldwide chain of variety stores that satisfied the needs of households wherever they were located. Woolworth’s moved his Watertown store into this building in 1921, two years after Mr. Woolworth died.

The building was a duplicate of the Woolworth’s company Fifth Avenue store in New York City, and it immediately became a city landmark.

The store prospered for more than 50 years, even during the debilitating period of the city’s efforts to exploit federal dollars to revive downtown by demolishing much of downtown. A new Woolworth’s store was built where Steam is now located.

The old Woolworth building itself then began its descent. The Woolworth Company, valuing the property at more than $1 million, donated it to the Henry Keep Home, which subsequently sold it to Philip Smithline. Almost immediately the offices of doctors, lawyers, accountants, jewelers and insurance brokers that filled the building’s upper floors slowly closed.

No retail establishments gained much of a foothold in the building. Finally the building was abandoned, and it increasingly became an eyesore as many owners presented ideas and concepts for its rejuvenation. Instead, it became the symbol of the deterioration of the city center.

Now the building has been sold, state grants acquired and construction begun to add much-needed housing in a market that leaves tenants facing higher and higher rent bills for ill-maintained properties. The pleasant memories of the old Woolworth’s store are supplanted by hope for the reuse of the property to bring new life downtown and alleviate the housing shortage. Erich H. Seber and David Gallo bought the building, and now Mark Purcell in partnership with Lecesse Construction begins a year’s worth of work to bring life to the 92-year-old building.

The city has reason to be optimistic about its downtown. In the last few weeks, an extensive upgrade of the Solar Building has begun, providing new tenants with affordable rents and a secure building.

The buildings on the Mercy Hospital site are being cleared of antiquated hospital equipment. More than 100 tons of junk have been hauled to the landfill as the developer prepares to initiate an asbestos-abatement program before demolition begins.

Brian Murray, the downtown entrepreneur who is revitalizing the Solar Building, is working on a very creative plan to make the Lincoln Building into a LEED-certified poster child for what can be done to rehabilitate an old building into an energy-efficient gem.

Private and state investments are working in downtown Watertown. And as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we should give thanks to the hard work, energy and risk-taking that Brian Murray, Steven F. Aiello of COR Development, David Gallo and Mark Purcell are devoting to giving Watertown a city center that makes the community proud.

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