The Curiosities of Somerville

Museum of Modern RenaissanceThe Museum of Modern Renaissance. Photo by

The stories behind some of the city’s most bizarre buildings

Written by Kat Rutkin and Reena Karasin.

The Center for the Arts at the Armory

191 Highland Ave.

“It’s one of those buildings that only its mother could love,” Executive Director of the Historic Preservation Commission J. Brandon Wilson says about the Somerville Armory.

Its overbearing features are remnants of when the Massachusetts National Guard roamed the building. An enormous drill hall, doors big enough for horses to fit through, and thick walls with barred windows combine to form the huge, odd building on Highland Ave. that was built in 1903.

When the building went up for sale, Wilson worried that people would gloss over the Armory’s history and demolish it. It was the state’s to sell, and Somerville had little negotiating power.

But Nabil and Joseph Sater, owners of the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub in Central Square, led a push to buy the building in 2004 and transform it into the artistic and cultural space that it is today.


Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Architects had to balance repurposing the building and making it ADA compliant with preserving its historical integrity. Wilson participated in long negotiations to keep a ramp at the front of the building, arguing that it was an indispensable part of the Armory’s design, coming across as the drawbridge to the castle. But the ramp was too steep to meet ADA requirements. Ultimately, the city raised the sidewalk in front of the Armory to keep the ramp but also make the building accessible.

The drill hall became a huge performance hall, and a flexible cafe space now runs in one of the building’s larger spaces. Smaller rooms are for offices and classes.

“Different rooms’ space now is dictated by what they were then,” says Executive Director for the Arts at the Armory Lea Ruscio.

The building still has some growing pains from the switchover. Having events in an otherwise largely residential neighborhood requires a tricky balance. Many neighbors were worried about the change, according to Wilson, and one family moved away after their daughter couldn’t sleep due to noise from Armory guests on the night before she took the SATs.

Ruscio says the Armory aims to keep events as quiet as possible, and has strict noise limits for the performance hall—limits that keep the Armory from hosting many musical groups. The Armory is raising money to soundproof the hall.

Wilson says she thinks the tensions that emerged during the switchover have improved recently, and that people have grown to appreciate the Armory as a building and what it offers.

“Oftentimes we tear things down and we don’t necessarily respect our heritage and where we’ve come from,” Wilson says. “And I think that’s really helpful to people, particularly these days, people need to feel more grounded, and buildings help do that.”


Pearl St

Photo by Ben Wight.

Pearl Street Studios

226 Pearl St.

A striking brick industrial building nestles among the wood frame structures on the edge of Gilman Square. Its large, multi-paned windows stretch almost a full story each, and a large mural notes the location: “226.”

The building is now home to Pearl Street Studios, a three-story artists’ live-work space, but it once housed the Somerville-based Kemp Nuts Company. An original concrete shield finial with a “K” is in the front yard, an appropriately artsy nod to the building’s history.

Edward F. Kemp founded Kemp Nuts in Somerville in 1915 in a building located at 172 School Street, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Survey completed when 226 Pearl was deemed a state historic asset. 226 Pearl St. was built around 1920 as the company expanded, and housed manufacturing facilities in addition to a home for Kemp—making it quite possibly Somerville’s original live/work makerspace. The factory expanded to the surrounding blocks during the heyday of Kemp’s nut production in the early 1900s, including the area that is now Edward Leathers Community Park.

The Kemp Factory is one of only a handful of buildings that remain from Gilman’s commercial prime in the 1900s. You can spot the surviving buildings easily; they are the taller brick structures now more likely to house artist spaces. Across the street from 226, an old telephone switching building now houses Mad Oyster studios, and the Knights of Malta Hall at 343 Medford St. holds Somerville Studios and a few other creative economy businesses.

Pearl Street Studios is currently home to 13 artists working in a variety of media out of 10 studio spaces, according to the building’s Facebook page. If you’re curious about the interior of this space, Pearl Street Studios is a featured stop during Somerville Open Studios.


The Museum of Modern Renaissance

115 College Ave.

Nearly everyone has seen the bizarre, vibrant building near Powderhouse Circle, yet few people know much about it. The Museum of Modern Renaissance jumps out of an otherwise typical Somerville neighborhood, with bright murals completely covering the A-frame house on College Ave.

It’s not a museum in the typical sense. Moscow-born artists Nicholas Shaplyko and Ekaterina Sorokina live there, and have worked together on every bit of artwork in and out of their house. On their website, Shaplyko and Sorokina describe their style as “magical realism” created through “spontaneous collaboration.” They dubbed their home a museum in the Greek sense of the word, meaning a place where muses live.

If you think the outside is gorgeous or interestingly wacky or both, you can see the inside for yourself. Shaplyko and Sorokina typically open up parts of their home to amazed visitors during the Somerville Open Studios.


Mudflat Studios

81 Broadway

Mudflat Studios has been at 81 Broadway since 2011, in the building that began its life as the Broadway Theatre. Built in 1915 and rumored to be part of an elaborate stock scheme, it was soon acquired by the Viano family who owned the Somerville and Capitol Theatres (in Davis Square and Arlington, respectively). 

The Vianos’ theaters were known for the best fresh popcorn and gimmicky prize nights to boost attendance, according to the Somerville Theatre website. The theater was a neighborhood staple until 1982, when the nearby Sacks Theater in Assembly Square put it out of business.


Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

The building was used as a warehouse through the 1990s, and in 2002 the City of Somerville bought it to use as an arts facility. Mudflat Studios, a non-profit pottery school that was outgrowing its home at 142 Broadway, was selected by the city to redevelop the building. Mudflat purchased the theater from the city in 2005.

After several years of delay, including a lawsuit from a nearby business hoping to acquire the building, construction began on a new home for Mudflat Studios in 2010. The complete $3.8 million renovation was completed in 2011, according to a blog detailing the building’s renovation, and included a full excavation of the ground floor to support a new, poured-concrete second floor. Many interior and exterior details were preserved as part of the new school, including cove moulding in the lobby and an adapted marquee, according to the blog.

Mudflat now houses 34 artists and offers classes and workshops for adults and children ages 4 and up, and offers scholarships and partial-pay programs to keep the art form accessible to people from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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