Krikor Barmakian was born in 1883 in Malatya — a large city in what is now central Turkey, 100 miles from the Syrian border — in what was then a part of the Ottoman Empire known as Western Armenia. Amidst the great massacres of ethnic Armenians that would soon lead to the Armenian Genocide, Krikor immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s with his wife Yester (Esther), and was soon joined by his siblings and mother. Departing from the family trade of jewelry-making, Krikor opened a series of restaurants — in Cleveland, Somerville, and then Providence.
In the early 1920s while on a recreational day trip to Oak Bluffs, Krikor spotted an empty storefront for rent. He was “rather impulsive,” remembers his nephew Vaughn Barmakian, and “a little bit of a maverick,” invariably adorned with a three-piece suit, pocket watch, diamond ring, and cigar. Acting on a whim, Krikor leased the summer boarding house and dining room known originally as the Cottage City House (built in the 1870s or early 1880s). He converted it first into a successful ice cream parlor, then into a café and hotel: The Boston House.
Throughout the 1920s, the Boston House was advertised as an “American and Chinese Restaurant and Cafeteria” featuring homemade pastry. (“He always had a Chinese chef to cook both ways,” recalls Vaughn.) He also advertised “attractive rooms at reasonable prices,” although these quickly filled with Krikor’s siblings and their families for the summer.
Late one night in December 1938 a fire broke out in H. L. Butler’s tailor shop in nearby Haines Block. An alley cat alerted Esther to the fire, and she was the first to call the alarm. The Barmakians escaped with only their bedclothes. Despite the efforts of dozens of firemen, the Boston House and the Haines Block were both completely destroyed, together with the Japanese gift store between them. Other buildings, including the Island House and Darling’s candy shop, also suffered serious damage. Losses were estimated as high as a quarter of a million dollars. Fortunately, no one was injured.
With the help of his poker buddies (DeSorcy, Hinckley, and Sweet at the Rod and Gun Club over Hoyle’s Department Store), Krikor soon borrowed enough money to rebuild the Boston House, a building which still stands today on Circuit Avenue. When the second world war broke out, Barmakian found that he held the only year-round liquor license on the Island. Each night buses full of thirsty servicemen from the naval air station would arrive looking for beer and whiskey. Barmakian repaid his debts in two years, mostly through the sale of wartime beer: an eight-ounce glass for ten cents, or a bottle for a quarter. Young Vaughn and his twin brother Diran were tasked with fetching ice from the basement. It was “raucous,” he recalls; “It was an exciting way to grow up.” So much beer was sold so quickly, he remembers, that once a keg was spiked open, “they never shut the tap.” Many of these servicemen, he later learned, were killed at Normandy on D-Day.
After a bad stroke in 1946 rendered Krikor paralyzed on one side, the business was sold to George Munro (1915-1995). It became “Munro’s Boston House,” and while it became more of a respectable restaurant than a raucous tavern, it remained a Circuit Avenue landmark into the early 1980s.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.