Murphy’s Diner lives on!

This weekend marks the 29th anniversary of when I shot my first photo of a diner. I posted previously about this at the end of last month. In thinking back on these last 29 years and all the diners I have photographed (since that first shot of the Bypass Diner of Harrisburg, PA), some of my most intriguing shots have been of closed or abandoned diners (like the former Rosedale Diner, Daryl Hall & John Oates Abandoned Luncheonette in my header).

Possibly the first abandoned diner I ever documented was one I found in Haverhill, Mass. It was the summer of 1981 and if I remember correctly my brother Rick and I were driving north on state Rte. 97. I had passed thru downtown Haverhill and was just going over I-495 heading toward Methuen, Mass. and Salem, NH. Just over on the left past I-495 was an old farmhouse with some trees behind it. Peeking out from behind the trees was the side elevation facade of a stainless steel late 1940’s or early 1950’s diner.

Below, you can see the photos from my first visit to Murphy’s in Haverhill…..


Left side close-up. This is the side you could see from the road,
just a different angle. You can see where the roof of the kitchen
building was cut away in this view.
August, 1981 photo by Larry Cultrera


Front side view almost hidden by the trees.
August, 1981 photo by Larry Cultrera


Front right corner view.
August, 1981 photo by Larry Cultrera


Right rear view also showing where the roof of the kitchen was cut
away. August, 1981 photo by Larry Cultrera

I stopped to check it out and actually talked to some people who lived in the house. They were just renting the accomodations and told me their landlord owned the diner as well as the property. They did not know anything about the diner but gave me the name of the owner. I did some sluething and actually got a phone number for the owner.

I subsequently called him one day soon after to ask about the diner. He was somewhat reluctant to say much about it and was a tad suspicious of me and my motives. I finally convinced him that I was conducting a personal research project, documenting diners (he probably thought I was nuts). I told him when I saw a diner up on blocks in a yard behind a house, I felt compelled to find out where the diner came from.

He eventually told me that it was the former Murphy’s Diner of Cambridge, Mass. I later showed the photos to my diner buddy David Hebb and he showed me a book he had in his personal library published in 1977 by the Cambridge Historical Commission. The book was entitled  Survey of Architectural History of Cambridge, Northwest Cambridge and Survey Index written and researched primarily by Arthur Krim. (Arthur and I were to become friends and collegues in the Society for Commercial Archeology not too long after).

On page 149 of this book there was a photo and a short blurb about Murphy’s Diner. Here is what a partial scan of the page showed…

Following are a closer view of the photo and the info on the page…



In preparation for this post, Dick Gutman sent me info from his database about the diner with some interesting notes, among them a mention that the diner left Cambridge in 1968. I mentioned to Dick about the 1970 date from the book and he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure where that info he had came from. This had prompted me to contact Arthur Krim.

I spoke with Arthur today (November 29th) for some background and to confirm the date he had written (as to when the diner left Cambridge). He said by the time they were doing the research for the book in 1971 the diner was already gone. Luckily the photo of the diner was shot just prior to the move in anticipation of the research. He also mentioned city permits and other info that were obtained in the research that verified the facts.

 The diner remained in Haverhill until June of 1993 when (according to Richard Gutman’s notes) it was bought by Charles Gutzos (who contracted with Brian Payne) who moved the diner to Peabody, Mass. Gutzos had plans to restore and reuse the diner but these plans never came to fruition due to Gutzos’ passing away suddenly.


Murphy’s in storage just off Pulaski Street in Peabody, Mass.
June, 1994 photo by Larry Cultrera


Murphy’s in storage just off Pulaski Street in Peabody, Mass.
June, 1994 photo by Larry Cultrera


Interior of Murphy’s Diner when in Peabody, Mass.
June, 1994 photo by Larry Cultrera

The diner again stayed in storage for the next 2 years in Peabody when it was bought on March 3, 1995 by Pendragon a British Automobile Dealership located in the town of Derby, who specialized in  selling classic 1950’s American vehicles. The diner was placed on a container ship and sailed over to the United Kingdom on April 28, 1995 where it underwent a $200, 000 restoration and was put into service as The Motown Diner. The Motown Diner went out of business by 1997.


Exterior photo of the Motown Diner in Derby, England 
July, 1996 photo by Richard Gutman


Dick Gutman in front of the Motown Diner in Derby, England 
July, 1996 photo by Kellie Gutman


Interior photo of the Motown Diner in Derby, England 
July, 1996 photo by Richard Gutman

After the Motown Diner closed it remained in storage for quite a few years again. The next chapter of Murphy’s Diner starts up in 2004. Enter Jeff Laight and Trish Whitehouse of S. Derbyshire, England. They actually bought the diner through a listing on Ebay! They now operate it as the 50’s American Diner in Church Gresley, S. Derbyshire. I have been in contact with them for a couple of years and actually was able to clue them into a copy of the Cambridge Historical Commission’s book which they bought on Amazon.com. I emailed them recently for this post and here are their own words on how they found the diner….

We bought the diner off ebay after looking for a farm in Wales (strange I know but thats us for you), it was sitting behind an Aston Martin dealership in Derby and had been left to the elements and not in a good state at all. It had smaashed windows all the electrics when removed from its last site had just been ripped out of the ground. The roof was leaking, etc. and the list went on.


The 50’s American Diner photo courtesy of
Jeff Laight & Trish Whitehouse
 
When we had bought the diner we did not know how to move it as moving diners is not the norm in England. We contacted many companies specializing in moving large stuff by road, one company said they would take it to pieces and move it in vans!! After many quotes we eventually settled on Darren Wilson Lifting Solutions because of its location and weight the crane we had to use was a 200 ton crane made up of 2 parts and a specialist lorry from Heanor Haulage.
 
During its journey to Church Gresley they took a wrong turn and were then stuck in traffic calming but only knocked 1 post over! After she landed on site, a year of never ending jobs started. Going before the planning permisision was a nightmare! The local council treated the building as a new build even though it was 50 years old, they tried to get us to double glaze the windows!!


The 50’s American Diner photo courtesy of
Jeff Laight & Trish Whitehouse
 
During the rebuild we had to renew all electrics re do the exterior, IE: take all the panels off at which point we found that most of the panels had been replaced with fibreglass copies which was a great shame. We also added a new toilet and washing up building at the rear. This all sounds very simple but it really wasn’t. We opened 22nd August 2005 and we are still here so we must be doing something right!
 

The 50’s American Diner photo courtesy of
Jeff Laight & Trish Whitehouse 
 
During the last 4 1/2 years we have enjoyed our time as diner owners and looking forward to the next 4 1/2 years. Since opening the diner has been featured on BBC TV, ITV, Sky Radio and of course KHQ TV in the USA.
Last year we were named as 1 of the top 25 webcams of the world by Earthcam and top 10 in March 2008. We have tailoured the menu to English tastes whilst still keeping to the diner’s history where we could. We have a chap here that makes us rootbeer to an old recipe too.
 

The 50’s American Diner photo courtesy of
Jeff Laight & Trish Whitehouse

The 50’s American Diner photo courtesy of
Jeff Laight & Trish Whitehouse
 
This brings me to June of this year, I did my Power Point presentation called Local Roadside Memories at the Medford, Mass. Public Library for the Medford Historical Society. It was well received by the packed room of attendees. One of the people who attended was Maryellen McCarthy of Medford. She asked me after the show if I knew anything about Murphy’s Diner that used to be in Cambridge.
 
She mentioned that she and her friends who attended Matignon High School (a Catholic High School in North Cambridge) were regular customers in the mid-to-late 1950’s of the diner as it was located about 1 or 2 blocks away from the school. She also mentioned that she had an old menu from Murphy’s in her posession. I of course told her the diner still existed and that there was a link on my blog to their website.
 
Front and back of Murphy’s Diner menu
courtesy of Maryellen McCarthy
 


Inside pages of Murphy’s Diner menu
courtesy of Maryellen McCarthy

 
Fast forward to 2 weeks ago when I received a phone call from Maryellen. She was excited to tell me about something she organized. After She told me her news I asked her to email me all the details so I could post it in Diner Hotline! This is what she wrote…. 
 
After I attended your lecture at the Medford Public Library (Local Roadside Memories) and learned that the Murphy’s Diner in North Cambridge (where I went for French fries and a Coke after school with Matignon classmates) had been moved to the UK you gave me an idea – why not celebrate our 70th birthdays together in a booth in the original Murphy’s Diner in Swadlincote, Derbyshire UK?  The diner has been fully restored and is operating as a diner/museum, a trbute to 1950s America according to their website. I emailed as many of my Class of 1957 classmates as I could find, made some phone calls, got in touch with the diner owners and so far have a group of twelve and likely more who will be traveling to the UK and visiting the diner on Monday, May 3rd 2010.

 Jeff and Trish, the owners, are just as excited; “over the moon” is the expression. I emailed a picture of an original Murphy’s menu that I still have and we have been exchanging emails since. They are arranging for the Friends of the American Diner Auto Club  to pick us up at the railway station in vintage American cars and I understand they have been in touch with the BBC to alert them about this “human interest” story.

 Thank you Larry, you have started what I know is going to be a really fun event for us and for the diner people. They told me they never thought they would ever meet anyone who had actually sat in a booth in their diner. They have named a dish they serve “The 2525 Massachusetts Avenue” for the original address in North Cambridge and pictures of the Matignon Class of ’57 cheerleaders and football team now hang on their wall.

I am flattered that I got to play a small role in this little adventure that Maryellen and her friends are going to embark on next spring.

Looking for a good read? Here’s a recommendation…

Check out A1 Diner, Real Food, Recipes, & Recollections
by Sarah Rolph

I have recently been in contact with Sarah Rolph. I knew about her through various people including Dick Gutman (author of American Diner Then & Now and The Worcester Lunch Car Company) who contributed archival photos as well as a  promo blurb on the back cover, and Ron Dylewski of “The American Roadside” website (http://www.theamericanroadside.com/) . In fact it was Ron who first put me in touch with her just over a year ago. Anyway Sarah wrote a book that came out in 2006 that I finally added to my Diner/Roadside library and it is a really great read!

This book captures the essence of the A1 Diner in Gardiner, Maine. This is Worcester Lunch Car # 790, a lovingly maintained circa 1946 vintage semi-streamlined model installed in a unique location. Originally known as Heald’s Diner (the name is still emblazoned on the porcelain panels) the diner is actually mounted on a steel frame 20 feet above ground to place the building adjacent to the bridge that crosses the Cobbossee Stream. The Diner’s front and side doors are entered from the bridge. You can also walk down stairs on the left side of the diner to the street below and actually view the underside of the diner.

I first knew about this diner through the book Diners of the Northeast by Donald Kaplan and Alan Bellink. Their book was a state by state guide to diners from Maine to New Jersey published in 1980 by The Berkshire Traveller Press. Of the diners in Maine they reviewed, the A1 (then still known as Wakefield’s Diner) seemed to be one of the highlights of their research.

Sarah Rolph’s book  features reminisces and stories from original owner Eddie Heald’s daughter Marguerite Gagne to second owner Maurice Wakefield to third owner Albert Giberson leading to current owners Mike Giberson and Neil Andersen. Along the way there are also stories from waitresses and other workers through the years, most notably Bob Newell who worked for every owner until retiring within the last 2 or 3 months.


Giberson’s Diner, photo circa August 28, 1982
by Larry Cultrera

Customers old and new chime in as well and the sense of history and nostalgia, not to mention sense of place and community come shinning through, making one want to take the long ride up to Gardiner to experience this place again (or even for the first time if you’ve never been). Interspersed throughout are recipes for meals from the respective different owners/cooks and time periods down the years.

I asked Sarah how she came about writing this book and she answered…..

I learned about the diner from my friend Karen Molvig. (She is no longer living.)  I met Karen when we both lived in Manhattan, in the late 1970s.  I was in my early twenties (I’m 54 now).  I moved to Boston in 1980.  Several years later, Karen moved to Maine—the Great Escape from the city.  She bought a place in Gardiner and eventually found A1 Diner.  Knowing I would enjoy the place, she took me there for supper on one of my visits.  She and her partner Jean had started to become friends with Mike and Neil, so that made it easy to meet them.


Giberson’s Diner, photo circa August 28, 1982
by Larry Cultrera

 I am originally from California, and had never been in an authentic diner.  I was fascinated by the small size, the fine materials, and the charm of the place.  I also loved the food.  As I got to know Mike, who was the main chef during the time I visited—late 1990s—he told me stories about the history of the diner.  It was clear he was very proud of his role in keeping the place alive and making it better, and it seemed like a really interesting story to me, the way the diner’s ups and downs reflected the changes of the town. 

When Mike and Neil purchased the diner, in the late 1980s, it was a difficult time in Gardiner.  I loved the small-business success story, the way Mike and Neil patiently worked to make the diner a success according to their longstanding vision.  They had to move very slowly, to keep from alienating their small cadre of regular customers and to keep from signaling to the town that this new version of the diner would be for yuppies only.  They really wanted to stay true to the diner’s heritage as a center of a community, and they succeeded in doing that while also upgrading it.  Now, as you know, you can still get a good old-fashioned hamburger, but you can also get Asian noodles.


Underneath the Diner, photo circa August 28, 1982
by Larry Cultrera

 When I met them, Mike and Neil had largely achieved this vision, but they told me stories about the way it had been when they started, and it was clear that it had been a long and difficult road.  I really admired their ability to achieve their dream through sheer hard work and imagination.  It seemed like that alone was a great story, the small-business challenges that had finally paid off. 

Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone, had come out around that time, and Mike and I both enjoyed it very much.  It reminded me of Mike, too.  Ruth learned to cook when she was a little kid, and so did Mike—he told me he would cook when nobody was home, and if the dish didn’t work out he would hide the evidence.  That book included recipes, which has since become a bit of a trend.  We thought it would be fun to do a history of the diner with recipes from every era.  I wanted to use the same approach Reichl did, having each recipe fit with one of the stories.  (In the end, I had to cheat a little bit to make it work out so that there were recipes in every chapter.  We didn’t have any recipes from the Eddie Heald era, but we used a modern soufflé recipe since we served soufflé to Marguerite Gagne when I interviewed her at the diner.  (Sadly, she is no longer living.)

 Tilbury House, Publishers, is located in Gardiner, Maine, so it was an easy sell.  In fact the publisher had been hoping someone would write a book about the diner and asked Neil—he told her someone was working on something, so she wasn’t even surprised to hear from me!

 Once I had the contract with Tilbury I did more research, spent a lot of time with Mike and Neil, interviewed Cindy and Bob, and interviewed Maurice Wakefield over the phone.  He was living in Florida at the time (he, too, has since died).  His mind was still very sharp, although his hearing was starting to go.  He had a special phone that increased the volume.  His daughter would make the appointments with me and take the call and then tell Maurice to get on his phone. 

He was great to interview, remembered a lot of stories, and wanted to tell me exactly how things were.  He was so pleased that people still remembered him and still cared.  It had been about thirty years, so he thought people would have forgotten him, but they had not.  Not only did the diner people I interviewed have stories about Maurice, but people in town remembered him, too. 

When I went to the State Library to look for old clippings, the gal who showed me how to use the microfiche machine, when I said I was writing about the diner, said “Oh!  Wakefield’s?!”  It was still Wakefield’s to her.  I was pleased to tell Maurice that.  I did two long phone interviews with him, and then I decided I really wanted to meet him, so Mike and I traveled to Florida and spent an afternoon with him.  It was really fun, the two of them talked about every little thing about the diner, the small details they both still enjoyed.  It was quite fun to hear them comparing notes about the place, and of course about the people—Cindy and Bob both worked for both Maurice and Mike. 

I  thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and give it a Diner Hotline “Approved” rating! It is available at Amazon….
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0884482774?ie=UTF8&tag=theamericanroadside-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0884482774