We start things off today in a place I’m confident is familiar to you all, a supermarket. It's very much like any other supermarket. The coffee is near the tea. The butter is near the milk. The shelves are stocked with an abundance of options.
But there is one thing that’s unique about this particular supermarket. And that’s what’s happening some 25 feet below: Cars and trucks zipping by at 75 miles an hour. That one can shop for groceries above a major interstate highway has left listener Craig Idlebrook wondering for years, and so he reached out to the Curiosity Desk.
In Newton, Massachusetts there’s a Star Market that overhangs the Mass Turnpike. And I was curious why that was, and if that structure was used for something in the past.
– Craig Idlebrook, Newton, MA.
Even if you’ve never been inside, you’ve likely driven under it. And while the building itself dates to the 1960s, its story begins almost a half century prior.
"The Star Market began in Watertown," explained Historic Newton's Clara Silverstein. "The first one opened in 1915. The owner was named Sarkus Mugar, and he was from Armenia. He started the company with nine hundred dollars borrowed from relatives."
If that name sounds familiar, it should. Sarkis Mugar was the grandfather of David Mugar, the Boston businessman and philanthropist famed for — among other things — being the guy behind the July 4 Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular for decades.
Sarkis helmed the Watertown Star Market until 1922, when he died following an automobile accident. His son Stephen took over the operation, and in 1930 opened a second Star Market — this time in Newtonville. (See picture below.)
Over the next two decades, Stephen Mugar — and his cousin John — expanded the Star Market into a booming family business. Stores were added from Wellesley to Cambridge. But the boldest leap came in 1948, again in Newtonville, with the Star Market’s first large-scale supermarket.
Boasting innovations like cellophane-wrapped meats and a luncheonette with microwaves, the grand opening was announced in a theatrical advertisement in the Boston Globe that billed the new Star Market as, "The first truly different food store in 20 years" and read, in part:
Never before has there been a store like the great new Newtonville Star Market. See it today! And Marvel at its beauty, its many innovations, its huge variety, its countless shopping conveniences.
Supermarkets may have been the newest thing in food, but post World War II America was a time of new things — and the new Star Market was already on a collision course with the latest thing in roads: the modern highway.
Massachusetts had jumped into the highway game in the 1950s with a turnpike that stretched west from the state border with New York all the way to Route 128. By the early 1960s, the push to extend the pike 12 more miles into the heart of Boston was gathering steam. But the controversial route would split in half the villages in-and-around Newton.
"And when the Turnpike Authority wanted to go through Newtonville, they wanted to take over the Star Market’s parking lot," said Silverstein.
It took years of negotiations, lawyers, politicians and a ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court. But in the end, the Turnpike Authority got its route, and the Mugars were granted the “air rights” to build a new store over top of the new turnpike. In 1963, for the third time in three decades, a Star Market made its debut in Newtonville.
"It was called the Supermarket of the Space Age," said Silverstein.
The Boston Globe called the structure “handsome” and described it in a piece on the eve of its June opening.
"There is probably nothing like it anywhere among food supermarkets," read the story. "Interior hues are flame red and off white. Draft-free air conditioning and wide aisles are among the attractive aspects...Spaced among the exterior….translucent plastic panels to be illumined at night."
The success of the Star Market project fueled the imaginations of developers and city leaders, who saw a future with gleaming buildings over the pike all the way from Auburndale to Newton Corner.
"People began to see air rights as a possibly expanding option for these village centers that felt very hemmed in," explained Silverstein.
In reality, only one other project would ever be built. And not a single structure has been built with air rights west of the city in almost 50 years.
As for the Newtonville Star Market? The company has been bought and sold a few times over the years. And after a stint as a Shaw’s in the mid-2000s, it was once again branded a Star Market. And so it stands over the Turnpike today: A nod to Newton’s past, and to an imagined future that never came to pass.