Doyle's History Talk by Gerry Burke

This article is based on a talk given by Gerry Burke to a meeting of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society the evening of November 9, 2005 at Doyle’s Café.


Good evening!  When I started to think about this presentation, I thought; “there’s roughly 120 years of history connected with the place so I’m going to have to condense it to a broad overview to give a good history of Doyle’s.” 

So part of my show-and-tell is this picture, which was taken in December 1902, from the Forest Hills side of Washington Street showing progress of the work on Stony Brook and the Elevated Railway System going to Forest Hills.  The Forest Hills work had progressed to a point approximately between Williams Street and Rossmore Road at that time. If you notice that fellow on the right, wearing a bowler hat, and standing next to the mailbox, he has a remarkable resemblance to my grandfather, Bill Burke.  I’m not sure it’s him; it could have been, but I don’t know.  In 1902 he was the owner of John Sheehan’s Tavern on the corner of Rossmore Road and Washington Street.  It’s not there anymore; it was located where the parking lot in front of the Laundromat is found today.

In 1905 Bill Burke became President of the Ancient and Honorable Hibernians, Division 40, in Jamaica Plain and there he became very close with the Doyles over the ensuing years. The building behind the man in the picture is the original Doyle’s.  The wall you see there encloses the grocery store.  Halfway between the grocery store and the saloon on the other side are swinging doors that were used to enter and leave the saloon side. I can’t see anything on the windows, but I would assume the windows on the grocery side would say, “Fine Teas, Coffees, and so forth.”  There is a sign on the other side but I can’t read it.  The house in back still exists and Dennis Doyle, who built the original Doyle’s building, owned it.  His son Barney assumed ownership after Dennis’ death in 1900. 

Doyle’s did well all through the 1880’s and 1890’s.  But with the burgeoning population coming out this way and with the Elevated Railway  System in place, Barney said to himself,  “I’m not going to be able to do this unless I expand the operation to keep up with the times.”  He had considered a couple of  options, including destroying the building, but he couldn’t do that, because it was only 20 years old! What he decided to do was to push it back roughly 60 feet toward Gartland Street and add a new building to the existing structure. And so the entire building was jacked up about eight inches and telephone poles were inserted under it as rollers.  Horses and teams moved  the existing building  back to make room for the new building addition.

I have the original Specifications and Contract for the new Doyle building.  The salient features of the two documents were (1) the call for nothing but Union Labor  and (2) the use of only the best  materials available. 

So you’re now sitting in the original saloon of   Doyle’s – the old Willow Athletic Club – as it was after the move. It now serves as our function room. You probably noticed the floor in this room is slightly elevated.  This is because this is the original part of the building that had  been raised for the rollers.  The original bar was formerly against the wall in this room and when the new building was completed the bar was moved to where it is now, in the saloon on the Williams Street side of the building.   This is the reverse of the original layout when the grocery store was on the Williams Street side. 

The grocery store and the new saloon prospered in the new building from about 1910 to 1919 when Prohibition came in. Prohibition brought tough times and all the money spent on the expansion went down the drain as the Doyles were no longer interested in the business without the saloon. They had  invested  heavily in the new building that was built to last forever! So, they sealed-off the swinging doors that formerly connected the saloon and the grocery store and Doyle’s began its new life as a Speak-easy!

 The grocery store, located in the room we’re meeting in tonight, stayed open and continued operating under the management of Luigi Salvi.   Luigi Salvi’s family owned the saloon my grandfather operated at Rossmore Road.  Due to Prohibition  my grandfather had to close that saloon down also.  But he kept it open as a Spa, selling fancy candy, notions, and so forth. However, it was really a front for a bootlegging operation. The deal was that he would supply the booze for Billy Doyle’s Speak-easy.

So over the years, while the Burkes and the Doyles became close friends,  no one ever mentioned their business arrangement because anyone with Irish blood in him would know you’d never say anything about that, - the favorite expression being “tell ‘em nuthin!”  In fact, because it was never discussed in my family, it was only  through my own  research later that I learned that my grandfather, Bill Burke, supplied the juice.  Some have suggested that Joe Kennedy, JFK’s father, was involved, but he wasn’t.  He was busy in the stock market at that time, while after Prohibition he became a liquor importer, among other things.

Then, in 1928, during the administration of Mayor Malcolm Nichols, the last Republican Mayor of Boston, my grandfather was granted the refreshment concession at Franklin Park.    It included the Franklin Park Zoo, the Refectory, and the Golf Course. I don’t know if he did anything in the Refectory Building; a big cavernous building, but knowing Bill Burke, chances are he was selling juice from there too!  However, my grandmother faithfully went to Mass and put enough money in the box at Lady of Lourdes to save his soul.  Of course, the old Irish always said, “If you’re in the booze business you’re gonna die a violent death,” but the widows always said, “I’ll take the money anyway!”  They lived in splendor thereafter.

Getting back to the new building, in 1909 they installed  a new flat-rate telephone connection  to the new saloon.  You didn’t have to use money in it and you could get the latest ball game scores, boxing results, whatever you needed to know, including the numbers.  It was located in the old telephone booth that used to be in the front room and then for years, before we got here, it was down the cellar.

So Doyle’s did well until Prohibition ended in 1933 and Francis Doyle came back in, taking over from Barney Doyle, around 1933 or 1934.  At that time there was an Irish-American boxer named James J.Braddock who beat Max Baer in 1935 to  become the  heavyweight champion of the world.  Joe Louis took the title from  Braddock in 1937 but he  always remained a favorite of the Boston Irish.  At the time there was a Braddock Rye Whiskey from Maryland that was named after General Braddock, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces on the continent during the French and Indian War.  General Braddock was liked and respected by both sides  until he was fatally wounded in a skirmish and died.  Somehow, Francis Doyle got together with the Braddock Whiskey people and made the proposition that; while he could not sell their whiskey exclusively, he would ‘push’ it hard as he could, if they would agree to put a new front on the existing building which had fallen into disrepair during Prohibition and the Depression. The Braddock people agreed and installed new brickwork, a new window and paid for new signage.  And that’s the origin of the Braddock Café.  In 1939 the business’ name was officially changed to “F.J. Doyle and Company, dba Braddock Café.” 

During Prohibition the Doyles had extensive land holdings in Jamaica Plain.  There was plenty of development work to be done and by 1955 they had built the building at 18 Pond Street.  Bill Doyle, who had taken over from Francis, had heard my grandmother was looking for a place and he gave her first refusal at a rent that would barely pay for an afternoon there today! 

In the late 30’s and 40’s, with the kids going off to war, there were a couple of lean years but  the slack was soon taken up by the expansion of  local factories converting to  war work.  So, Doyle’s generally did well in the war and post-war years when the veterans returned until the late 40’s.  Then Harry Truman came in and things were fine.

In the 50’s everyone just sailed along.  The 50’s were a good time to be living in Jamaica Plain as some of those here tonight know.  Graduating from Jamaica Plain High School in 1958 we are now looking forward to our fiftieth reunion coming up in 2008!

The early 60’s saw the young Irish Catholic kid from Boston, John F. Kennedy, elected President of the United States  and everything was fine. Then when he was killed  things just went all to hell in a handbasket as far as I’m concerned and this neighborhood began to change fast!  It had started changing in the late 50’s as the boys and girls were getting out. Pushed on by the riots in ‘67 it was tough down here.  This neighborhood from Forest Hills to Eggelston Square was really no-man’s land by the early 70’s; and, as many of you know, it wasn’t easy.

So, in 1971, Bill Doyle asked my brother Edward if he’d be interested in buying the place – “I’ll give your family  first shot at it”, he said.  I told Eddie he was crazy, “you’re out of your mind, Franklin Park is already gone and if we don’t get out of there we’re gonna get hurt!”  But he said, “no, if we do it right and offer good food and drink and systematically exclude a lot of the jerks we grew up with and keep them out it’s gonna work!”   So we went ahead with it. 

Then we were lucky enough to get this fellow, Ted Pitman, who was the head chef at the Venetian Gardens. He lived up on Glade Avenue and we talked him into coming with us.  We picked his brain and took his advice to buy only the finest food available and cook it right, - so he had a lot to do with putting us on the map.  As a result, business got so good in the first room we had to something, so we expanded to this room, the old grocery store. 

I was still doing my political work with Kevin White and I began decorating the walls with all this  political material, all of which is authentic and original because I won’t put up reproductions. John L. Sullivan, the famous Irish boxer who was world heavyweight champion in 1882 came here often.  His mother was from Roscommons, the same village as the Doyle family.  His picture was on the wall along with Mike Kelly, the first Irish baseball hero.

We dedicated the main room in 1986.  Mayor Raymond Flynn, named it in honor of  the great Irish patriot Michael Collins.  Ray Flynn had a lot to do with the success of this place and he is truly a great guy. 

As things got better my brother Billy was in charge of beer operations and I handled food operations and public relations. Then one night, Eddie Martin, an aide to Senator Kennedy came in and said, “I really like this place, is there any chance that the Senator would get a good reception here?”   I said “I’ll tell you what, we’re opening a new room in 1988 and I’ll name it in honor of the Senator’s maternal grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald.”   So, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1988, Senator Kennedy dedicated this room, the old grocery store.  I was originally going to name it the Sam Adams Room because Jim Cook had opened  the Sam Adams Brewery here in Jamaica Plain. 

This John F. Fitzgerald Room was the original grocery store.  Over the years it had been occupied by The Willow Athletic Club, various tailors, cobblers, barbers and so forth.  It had been closed off from the saloon by a wall and was in terrible shape when we took over. We removed the wall, cleaned up the old shops’ area, added a small room extension and began using this side.  

 In the 90’s things were going wonderful.  We never had an incident of any kind.  It was nothing like years ago when we’d announce “last call” and guys would say, “I’m not leaving, what are you going to do about it?” And we’d call Police Station 13 and they’d say “that’s your problem, we’re not going  down there!”  So we’d have to fight the “last call” crowd to get them to leave.  Now the customers are  saying “thank you very much, how much do I owe you?” at closing time.  We can’t believe it!

A couple of years ago we opened the Tom Menino Room which is this room we added at the end of the Fitzgerald Room.

Some of you may recall that in 1964 three guys came in and announced it was a hold-up.  They put a bullet in the wall over there near the Paul Revere picture.  That isn’t the moon you see in the picture, it’s where the bullet hole was patched with plaster.  They then pistol-whipped Tom McDonough, the bartender, and they ran out the door, not knowing that Billy Doyle, a former policeman,  was crouched down behind the counter.  Doyle then came out, opened the window, and shot one of the robbers four times, killing him.  He then went outside and relieved him of his money.  He then called Station 13 and they took the robber to City Hospital, but he was dead.  Bill Doyle had a well-deserved reputation for being very frugal and the story goes that they were the only four shots he ever gave away for ‘nuthin. 

My mother always said, “When Bill Doyle talks, you listen”.  One day, during the energy crisis, he said, “You like to burn wood don’t ya?”  I said “yes” and he said, “I’ve got some nice wood down the street.”  So I went down with the truck and got some rotten wood from an old shack he owned nearby. It was filthy wood, just awful.  It turned out that the City had cited him and had ordered him to get the wood out of there  in three days, or else!

Bill Doyle also owned the Meehan Block at the corner of Glen Road and Washington Street.  I was still working for the City and he let me park there and get the El upstairs to go in town. One day in November 1972, during the energy crisis, I got off the train and found him in the parking lot with a flashlight under his arm.  He was getting old about this time and I said, “What are you doing here at this time of night Billy?”   He said, “I shut the heat off on these bastards this morning so now I’m putting it back on!”  Billy Doyle was quite a character.

My brother Billy decided a couple of years ago to leave the business.  He went to work for Stop and Shop in their liquor operations.  My brother Eddie got out recently too.  So, I’m here, on a long leash, using the place as my clubhouse, and I’m in and out all day.  My son Jerry took over in June of this year with my godson Christopher Spellman who’s from a great old Jamaica Plain  family.  And of course, I told them not to change anything, but I notice they’ve put in a couple of flat-screen TVs over the bar..  But that goes back to the old Doyle’s premise of  “keeping up with the times.”  I recall when we took over; Bill Doyle only had two ice cube trays, saying, “What the hell do you need an ice maker for?”

So that’s about it.  I can take some questions now I guess.

Q.  Isn’t there some kind of easement under this building?

Ans.  Yes, the old Stony Brook that wandered  from Stony Brook Reservation at High Point Village, in Hyde Park, to the Muddy River  passed right under us, and all the properties along its route to the River.  They decided to put Stony Brook  in a culvert and cover it over.  To do that they made a taking  for easements to install the culvert underground. This was actually  another reason for moving the building back originally.  They granted a hundred year lease to occupy the easement which was up last year.  But by logic and common sense we deserved the land anyway.  When they demolished the Elevated you could see the culvert.  

Q.  I was wondering about the movies they made here. 

Ans.  Oh yes, there have been several movies shot here.  There was The Brinks Robbery, The Celtics movie, The American Experience on James Michael Curley with  David McCullough, The Irish in America, Mystic River, the Sam Adams beer ad in which my son appears and many other TV ads.  There isn’t a month goes by when someone doesn’t come in to do some kind of an ad which we are happy to accommodate on a complimentary basis.

Q.  Wasn’t there an  old clothing store located here?

Ans.  Yes, there was.  It was Cappy’s Tailor Shop.  It was on this end of the building. The Capone family ran it.  (Not THAT Capone family!)  The barbershop, with two pool tables was here too.  Then this was the Viet Nam Veterans Post No.1, then the old Rossmore Associates - Jack Spinney and those guys,  came back  too.  They had been in the old Norton’s bar room down the street.  This was the late 70’s and these guys were dying off, one-a-month from overdoses, or suicide,  and so forth.  It was a very rough period. 

Q.  Has this building been put on the Historic Register?

Ans.  No, it isn’t  because you have to conform to their restrictions  - you can’t do what you want to the building.  You can open up any area of this building and you’ll find an old door, an old window or whatever; there’s so much character here as you can see in the pictures I sent around. 

Q.  Wasn’t this always,  more-or-less, a workingman’s Pub?  And when did women start coming in?

Ans.  Yes, that’s what it  always was - a workingman’s Pub.  The women started after the First World War  when they reluctantly came in to get their husbands out after Mass.  They became more acceptable in the early 60’s.  Remember, this was a tough neck of the woods.

As far as the political aspect of the place, it started with Ray Flynn in a lot of ways.  I don’t remember any other Mayor before him coming in.  Former Mayor Collins used to come in after he was out of office. We would drag Mayor Kevin White in here if there were something going on in Jamaica Plain.  Generally, the advice to political candidates was to stay out of the gin mills – you’re not going to get any votes in there.  But times have changed.  In Mayor Curley’s time, if you wanted to petition him, you had to use the phone.  But nowadays, Ray Flynn and Tom Menino practice retail politics – they bring it right to you, which in many ways is much better.

Q.  Wasn’t there always a strong  ethnic Irish presence here?

Ans.  Yes there was, and a lot of Germans too!  But mostly Irish. They would stop in here asking about  work  in the nearby factories, the Gas Company, and so forth. And many came in to cash their paychecks. When my own grandfather came from Galway he was told to go down to Doyle’s to ask about work at the Gas Company, Sturtevant’s, Franklin Park, the MBTA, Crittendon’s and other places. 

Q.  Has the removal of the MBTA’s elevated  structure changed things much around here?

Ans.  Oh yes, and I miss it a lot! There was nothing better than standing in the first car looking out the front window as the train headed in town. It was a lot of fun. And, of course, we now have to wash the windows more frequently! 

Q.  In the early 70’s there was a very multi-ethnic, multi-racial, group employed at the nearby Brookside Community Health Care where I worked.  And everybody said, “We can all always go to Doyle’s”.

Ans.  Yes, and  remember, my grandfather, my father and my brother Eddie and I operated the refreshment concessions at Franklin Park, the greatest melting pot in the world!  We worked with everybody up there.  And we never forgot how oppressed  the Irish had been     in their own day and that always guided us in dealing with people.  And if it weren’t for  Teddy Pitman we wouldn’t have done what we did here. 

Q.  When did the Refectory Building at the Park come down?

Ans. About 1974.  There had been several fires and in 1972 there had been an auction there.  I stayed on a few more years at the Zoo.  The Refectory became derelict and it was stripped of its ornate decoration.  It was a sin.  If they would take some money and fix the beautiful bear den at the Park it could be restored.  Instead, there are street-people hanging out there and shooting-up.  Demolition by neglect it’s called. Franklin Park is gone.  I’m still very interested in the place.  I was on the Board of Directors when Brian Rutledge was there.  I took that poster of the three performing elephants off the wall of the Elephant House when it was abandoned.  It reads “Molly, Ratty and Tony, Performing Elephants,  presented to the Boston Post and the City of Boston by 70,000 Children, June 6, 1914.”  These were old circus elephants purchased with  contributions by the kids.  They were brought to Fenway Park to an overflow crowd.  Mayor Jim Curley had been in office for just a few months and, on behalf of the Boston Post, they were presented to him there.  They were  then paraded to Franklin Park.  They passed away and were replaced by a succession of other elephants. 

Q.  Was that the Boston Post Newspaper?

Ans.  Yes, the old Boston Post Newspaper which was around to the 1950’s.  The publisher, Mr. Fox, worked in the back room of a nearby bookstore until the 1980’s.  It was a Democratic newspaper. 

Q.  Was that a gorilla cage up on the hill at the Zoo?

Ans.  No, from what I understand that was all farmland in the 1880’s and one of the landowner’s sons was interested in astronomy.  To my knowledge  there were never any gorillas in that cage.   There were gorillas in the old Monkey House, however. When the Refectory was built, before the Zoo and Golf Course came, there was a carriage house built across the way, but it never worked  because there was no attraction in it.  So, when the Zoo was opened and there was an overflow of animals, they made the carriage house the Monkey House and that lasted until 1942 when Mayor Maurice Tobin, God rest him, closed it down due to the shortage of fuel during those early World War II days.  That put my old man out of business in the Refectory.  Maurice Tobin was a very honest man and he didn’t mind hurting someone if it benefited  the City.

Well, I guess that’s it.  I’ve really enjoyed this and I will be happy to answer any other questions later in the evening.  Thank you.

You may also be interested in this video interview of Gerry Burke by Rick Berlin.

The Jamaica Plain Historical Society is extremely grateful to Peter O’Brien for his assistance in transcribing this article from tape and editing it for print.