Ode to Café Pamplona

Sometimes the Shuttering of a Café is More Than Just a Business Closing

by Joseph Levendusky, originally published on The Left Bank of the Charles Review

The endearing little red building on Bow Street

Each succeeding generation of Harvard Square roustabouts claims to have known the real, authentic Square.  It begins, if you peruse Mo Lotman’s excellent Harvard Square: An Illustrated History, with John Updike musing about his Square in 1950. In 1972, the Harvard Crimson lamented, “While the Square is no longer unique, it still remains unusual, if only because it orients itself towards a young, semi-intellectual audience.”

But such ritual whinging may no longer be a mere generational gripe.  If you haven’t heard the news: Harvard Square ain’t what it used to be.  The Square has been, by degrees, leached of its soul, as authentic and organic local businesses are replaced by indulgent high-end retail, pretentious eateries and banal national chains.  Soon there may be little authenticity about Harvard Square save for Harvard itself.

One of the most recent and painful casualties is the ever-soulful Café Pamplona.  Café Pamplona was the life’s work of Josefina Yanguas, a native of the Pamplona—the city in Spain, where Hemingway was known to traipse about—which is most famous for its bullfights and the annual running of the bulls through the streets of town.

Born in 1916, Josefina found herself as a young adult in the midst of the difficult post war political situation in Franco’s Spain. She had also endured onerous family obligations.  Her mother died when she was twelve, and she had been charged with caring for her father and younger siblings.  She later confided to a friend, “When my mother died, all my dreams died with her.” In 1948, she left Spain on board a freighter and settled in Cambridge, which later in life she described as “a beautiful little village.”  In this village she found herself able to dream again.

After working for ten years as an au pair, Josefina had the notion of bringing the café culture that Europeans prize to Harvard Square, and so in December of 1958 she purchased a red wood framed building that was tucked in a sleepy backstreet block near the intersection of Bow and Arrow Streets.  (Perfectly straight Arrow Street bisects the gently curved Bow Street.)  She paid what seemed to her to be a daunting sum of $23,000. At the time she was earning $36 a week.

The building, 12 Bow Street, diagonally across from the handsome Saint Paul’s Church with its dramatic campanile, had most recently been the home of the defrocked anti-Semitic Catholic priest Father Leonard Feeney and his resolutely traditionalist Saint Benedict Center.  In the late forties and early fifties, Father Feeney preached a bitter brew of bigotry and theological dogma to disaffected Harvard students and, on Sundays, to anyone who would listen on Boston Common.

12 Bow Street in 1949 (Courtesy Cambridge Historical Commission)

Feeney was relieved of his priestly duties in 1949 by then Archbishop Cushing, who had received numerous complaints about the fire breathing priest, including one from a Harvard undergraduate named Robert F. Kennedy.  Nearly ten years of ecclesiastical conflict ensued between Feeney and the Catholic hierarchy, but in 1958 Feeney was finally dislodged from 12 Bow Street and he and his rabidly doctrinaire cult quit Cambridge and fled to Harvard, Massachusetts. Thus, the endearing little building became available.

Brattle Street at Massachusetts Avenue: The original site of the building now located at 12 Bow Street

Though the exact date of its construction is unclear, the wooden structure was built between 1825 and 1830 in the heart of Harvard Square near the intersection of Brattle Street and what is now Massachusetts Avenue. It was one of three attached commercial buildings known as the Farwell-Russell stores which stood on land owned by Levi Farwell, a merchant, deacon of the First Baptist Church in Cambridgeport and a steward of Harvard College. 

The portion now located on Bow Street was occupied by Thomas Russell, a furniture dealer.  In 1847, Russell detached his shop and moved it four blocks east to 1260 Massachusetts Avenue (now the location of the Harvard Book Store) onto land owned by John Holmes.  It was not uncommon in that era to own a building and yet be a tenant on another party’s land.

Harvard Square in the 1860’s looking toward Brattle Street (Courtesy Cambridge Historical Commission)

In 1868, Russell’s heirs moved the building once again onto a plot they owned on Bow Street, in the rear of the Thomas Russell house at 1208 Massachusetts Avenue.  Sometime shortly thereafter it was converted to residential use.  12 Bow Street now stands as the only intact example of 19thcentury wood framed commercial architecture in Harvard Square.  It is a registered historic landmark.

Josefina took the top floors of the two and half story structure as her residence.  Her friends, architect Ned Hoffman and his artist wife Patsy Hoffman, helped renovate her quarters and lower counters and fixtures to suit her very diminutive stature. The apartment became well admired in Cambridge for its clean midcentury style.  The first floor would be rented, and over time served variously as offices, an art gallery and an architectural bookstore, and the café was installed in the basement.  There was a small sliver of outdoor space between the house and the sidewalk of Bow Street where, in the warmer months, a number of tables would be set out cheek by jowl.

One entered Café Pamplona from the sidewalk down a short cement staircase and then through a door on the left-hand side of the café. The interior was a study in black and white.  White walls were softened by a patina provided by years of cigarette smoke. The floors were black and white checkerboard linoleum.   

Josefina—if you happened to encounter her—would be dressed in black from head to toe.  The uniform of the waiters—black pants, ironed white shirt and slender black tie in the Spanish mode—endured throughout her ownership.  The waitstaff was uniformly male.  That was simply the European way and it persisted until 1999, when Josefina was prevailed upon to hire female staff.

The room was only partly subterranean. A number of windows above ground level graced two sides of the café near the ceiling, providing light and a worm’s eye view of the sidewalk traffic outside.  There were always red geraniums on the windowsills. The ceiling was low, forcing taller patrons and waiters to duck occasionally beneath the very beams that supported the building.  It was cozy, but not cramped.  There were twelve tables—also black.

Café Pamplona opened early in 1959 and was at the leading edge of a cultural renaissance in Harvard Square.  A year earlier, Club 47 had opened around the corner on Mount Auburn Street.  The Club, initially devoted to jazz and poetry, would soon emerge as the locus of the Cambridge folk scene.  The 47 would bring many then obscure traditional artists, such as Doc Watson and Reverend Gary Davis, to Cambridge while also launching the careers of younger musicians including teenager Joan Baez, a resident of the nearby suburb of Belmont.

Café Pamplona was, in Josefina’s view, a place for people to meet and talk—to connect.  It was networking in the flesh.  It was social media before social media.  And—she boasted—she had the first espresso machine in Harvard Square. She allowed no music of any sort–unlike her eventual competitor Café Algiers on the opposite side of the Square–because she wanted nothing to interfere with her customers’ ability to interact.  “Americans are not used to ‘waste time,’ ” she once said, “But you don’t waste time in a café, you talk.”1

“Most places you go, it feels like a business,” remarked David H. Brennan, a Pamplona regular and the poet who composed “Ode to the Café Pamplona”.  “[Pamplona] is more a living room than a business…it’s like being invited into a good friend’s house.”2   A bit of a Gertrude Stein figure, Josefina was well known for hosting gala dinners for artistic and intellectual friends in her upstairs apartment.

“She introduced a way of life,” said Manka Madeksza, an artist from Brookline. “She literally brought the Spanish way of life to Harvard Square.”3   “It really was a mecca of the literati in Boston for decades,” said Elizabeth Stephenson.  “She created her own café society, a salon of great thinkers and artists and musicians. She saw her job as helping to facilitate this great gathering of people.”4  

A caretaker by nature, Josefina was known to generations of Harvard students as a motherly, world-wise persona dressed in black.  Juan Alonso, who was cared for by Josefina in her au pair years,said, “When my own kids ran away, they ran to her—which showed wisdom”5   Architect and close friend Carol Fippin added, “Everyone’s children ran to Josefina.”  It would delight her when students whom she had known throughout their Harvard years would return to the café with children and grandchildren in tow.

12 Bow Street is now a historic landmark

In 2006, Josefina was in declining health and sought a way to ensure the future of the café.  She sold the business to Nina Hovagimian.  A native of Montreal, Nina grew up immersed in that city’s café society.  “We didn’t go to bars. . .we went to coffee shops.”  Like Josefina, in Café Pamplona, she found something that reminded her of home.

Nina ran Café Pamplona for fourteen years.  She changed little, but soon encountered the difficulty of turning a profit in such a constrained room.  Due to landmark and code issues, the café couldn’t be substantially altered.   It was difficult to increase gross receipts, yet costs rose continually.  Hovagimian kept table service despite its expense.  It was part of the Pamplona gestalt.  

Like Josefina before her, Nina worked long hours and did everything.  “Our customers had a love affair with the café,” she told me, “but for me it was quite a lot of hard work.”  Despite that, she enjoyed the comradery of the regular loyal customers.  “I got to meet a lot of great people.”  She particularly enjoyed the students.  “You got to know them through their four years at Harvard. You knew when they were having a good day and also when they were having a bad day.  You saw them growing through their ups and downs.”

The past five years or so had become increasingly difficult financially, but this year when COVID struck and Harvard sent its students home, the situation became untenable.  With no students and no commencement, the typically profitable spring was a bust.  Seeing no alternative, Nina unceremoniously closed Café Pamplona in May of 2020.  “It breaks my heart,” she said.

Across the Square in Brattle Hall, Emile Durzi, a Palestinian immigrant, established Café Algiers in 1971 in a basement space recently vacated by the popular Blue Parrot Coffee House.  Built by the Reverend Samuel Longfellow’s Cambridge Social Union, Brattle Hall opened in 1890 and has continuously served as a cultural destination.

The Hall contained the Brattle Theatre, home of the Cambridge Social Dramatic Club until the 1930’s.  In August of 1942, Paul Robeson trod its boards in a historic performance as Othello alongside Uta Hagen and José Ferrer.  In the post-World War II period, it was home to the influential Brattle Theatre Company, which was known for casting blacklisted actors, most notably Zero Mostel in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalidin 1950.

In the mid-50’s, given growing interest in the French New Wave and auteur directors, the Brattle Theatre evolved into an art house cinema.  Brattle Hall also became the locale of the legendary bar, Club Casablanca, conceived as a nod to the theatre’s burgeoning Humphrey Bogart cult and widely known for its intimacy friendly rattan settees.

Born in Haifa and raised in Cairo, Emile arrived in Boston at age seventeen to study electrical engineering at Northeastern University.  After nearly ten years work as an engineer, Durzi decided that running a café might better suit his artistic temperament.  An accomplished organist, Durzi made music an integral part of his café, whether it was classical on the sound system or a faculty member of the nearby Longy School of Music practicing on his guitar between classes.

Mr. Durzi became known for recruiting an international staff.  He was a patron to many young immigrants who sought a start in Cambridge.  In the heyday of the original basement location, there was often a wait for a table in the afternoons and evenings.  Algiers was a hip venue for socializing in internationally minded, sophisticated Cambridge.  

In 1999, after extensive renovations to Brattle Hall, Café Algiers moved upstairs into more spacious two-story digs decorated by Durzi in a casual, but tasteful Middle Eastern motif.  The café persisted there until 2017.  While some Cantabrigians patronized both Pamplona and Algiers, many made a choice based on geography—east or west side of the Square—others saw the choice of their home café as a signifier of identity, much along the lines of a preference for either the Beatles or the Stones.

In recent years, Harvard Square’s café culture has been decimated.  There have been the closures of not only Pamplona and Algiers, but also the popular outdoor terrace of Au Bon Pain (for decades, indisputably the finest people watching spot in the Square) and relative newcomers Café Crema and Café Paradiso. Whatever the merits of Starbucks or Peets, they lack distinctiveness and local roots.  Walk into a Starbucks anywhere and you see the same décor, sit on the same furniture and order from the same menu.  

What do I mean when I refer to establishments as authentic and organic businesses?  They are businesses that arise out of the needs, tastes and sensibilities of both their proprietors and their clientele.  In most cases this entails local ownership.  Many college towns had coffee houses, but there was only one Café Pamplona.  The labor of love of one woman, Pamplona reflected Josefina’s own unique personality and taste. It had a certain je ne sais quoi.  Spaniards might call it duende.

Many might counter that sixty years is not a bad run for a café. There is a progressive, natural churn in any business district.  True enough, but when a business grown from the unique spirit of a community is replaced by banal national chain, that community is damaged.  

This dynamic has become alarmingly commonplace.  Over the past few decades, on Greenwich Village’s Bleecker Street, beloved home-grown businesses have shuttered to make way for high end national retail, consequently fueling rent increases that eventually national retailers deemed unsustainable.  The result: a blight of vacant retail space on Bleecker Street.

The aggregate effect, on a national scale, is an erasure of individual taste and a gradual cheapening of an already shallow commercial culture.    A bespoke, organic business is certainly a richer community asset than a formulaic business imposed from afar.

Piece by piece, Harvard Square seems to have been sold off to the highest bidder, with scant regard for uniqueness, character or community.  In this regard, it is not unique, but rather sadly emblematic of our increasingly insipid consumer culture.  The unique becomes ever more rare and the ersatz, fluffed by overblown marketing, becomes dispiritingly prevalent.  The mortification of a once distinctive business and cultural district is more than a shame; it is a cultural transgression.

What more to say?  Gracias, Josefina.  Thank you, Emile.  Thank you, Nina.  You created and sustained community assets that were singular and you touched the lives of many.

Josefina passed away in 2007, but not before receiving the keys to the City of both Cambridge and Pamplona from their respective Mayors.  Emile Durzi died in 2018, a year after the closing of Café Algiers.  Both are buried in the beautiful, historic Mount Auburn Cemetery located on the western edge of Cambridge.

 Quoted in Boston Globe obituary August 5, 2007

2  Quoted in Harvard Crimson obituary, August 10, 2007

3  Quoted in Boston Globe obituary August 5, 2007

4  Ibid

5  Ibid

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