MIDDLESEX - An institution that lured thousands into the community every year, the landmark Montvale Plaza will soon vanish from its Montvale Avenue perch near the gateway into Stoneham Square.
This July, the popular function hall that has stood in Stoneham since 1968 will close its doors for good as it changes hands to a Quincy-based ownership group that intends to raze the two-story facility and replace it with a 120,000 square foot storage facility.
Some town officials are already lamenting the transition, which will transform the compact 1.23-acre property from a destination where so many families created memories into a warehouse that will likely hold its fair share of forgotten photographs and boxes of mementos from those very celebrations.
But with limited on-site parking around the building and the market for family-owned function halls decimated in recent decades by competition from hotel chains and similar corporate venues, Stoneham's leaders this winter deemed the change as a low-intensity use that fits well in the area.
"Part of me would like to see a catering business continue. It's been a hallmark in Stoneham for over 60 years, but it's just not feasible for this site," remarked Planner Kevin Dolan, when the town board in December considered the special permit petition from Jumbo Self Storage.
"I think it's sad we're going to lose the Montvale Plaza, but its a much more suitable use for the area," later said Stoneham Planning Board member Daniel Moynihan, who noted a storage facility is unlikely to overwhelm the circulation of vehicles on the heavily-utlized Montvale Avenue corridor to I-93.
In late February, the fate of the Montvale Plaza was sealed after Stoneham's Board of Selectmen unanimously granted site plan approval for the business transition, which Jumbo Self-Storage says will require just 10 parking spaces.
Presently, there are 76 spaces on the congested parcel, where the building envelope overlooking Lindenwood Cemetery takes up much of the site. That limited parking had proven particularly difficult for the function hall to manage over the past decade.
According to local attorney Charles Houghton, who represents the future property owners, the new business will eliminate those parking constraints, as studies of similar self-storage operations show that only a handful of customers will likely be at the location at any one time.
Given the area and the way we've designed this building, it certainly fits and fits much better than the current use. Nothing is done in a vacuum. Between this use and [the function hall] use, there's no nuisance to pedestrians and vehicles. We'd be decreasing the amount of traffic," Houghton contended.
According to Marty Murphy, the owner of the Montvale Plaza, in recent weeks he's been struggling mightily with the decision to retire and sell the business, where his staff says the Johnson and Wales University trained cook regularly puts in at least 70 hours a week.
And though unsure of where life will next take him, he has felt somewhat better in knowing his dedicated staff members are going to assume control of Marty's Catering, the initial business he started in 1987 after working in the industry with his father.
"I'm struggling. I really am. I didn't think it would effect me the way it has. Emotionally, it's just taken a lot out of me," said the Medford resident, who though unsure of how he'll transition to the retired life, is looking forward to spending more time with his four granchildrenchildren and Mary Murphy, his wife of 43 years.
"I thought I was going to be working until I was 100-years-old…I'm not sure how my wife is going to handle [me being home all the time now]," joked Murphy. "My family always understood what I did here. I spent 40-years working morning, noon, and night, and they kind of accepted this is what it took to make a successful business."
The true loss
In recent months, as word spread across the region that the Montvale Plaza's days are numbered, a number of Stonehamites claimed they are mourning more than the demolition of a widely-recognized Stoneham landmark, as in their view, the community's greatest loss will be the departure of the man behind the function hall.
Since purchasing the then vacant Montvale Avenue banquet hall in 1998 for $1 million, Murphy has arguably become Stoneham's most active business philanthropist, though most perhaps know little about that generosity.
According to lifelong town resident Sharon Iovanni, who served as the executive director for Stoneham's Chamber of Commerce when the Medford native first joined the local business community, she was immediately impressed by the father-of-five's tremendous work ethic when he returned the dilapidated building into a pristine and attractively-furnished function space.
"I remember the day Marty and his crew bought the Montvale Plaza and reopened it. It was a great moment, because it revived something that had been part of our history for a long time. As a resident of this town and someone whose wedding was there back in the 1970's, I certainly appreciated it," said Iovanni, who now works right by the Montvale Plaza at StonehamBank.
Besides paying off a considerable bill for back taxes, Murphy in 1998 immediately invested tens of thousands of dollars into the unused space to install an elevator and make other aesthetical updates.
What resulted was an elegantly decorated front entrance, anchored by an oversized antique foyer chandelier, where guests utilized an imperial staircase to access the building's two ballrooms.
In the years that followed, as Iovanni returned again and again to the increasingly popular destination for weddings and corporate functions, the Chamber of Commerce officer soon realized Murphy's huge heart was perhaps the only thing that eclipsed his seemingly inexhaustible work ethic.
As many beneficiaries of Murphy's generosity will say, whenever anyone needed to raise funds for a charitable effort, whether it be for the the 12 parents and children maimed in the Central Elementary School car wreck in 2004 or the five local residents wounded in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the Montvale Plaza was there.
"I think the single most important thing Marty brought to this community is a true sense of caring and responsibility for what happens here. I don't think he ever said no to anybody, and I can't think of a single big event or fundraiser that didn't happen [at the Montvale Plaza]," said Iovanni.
According to Thomas Feagley, the Executive Director for the Bread of LIfe, a Malden non-profit dedicated to feeding the hungry, Murphy's reputation as a quiet and hardworking businessman with a humble and generous heart is well-earned.
Ever since Murphy first opened Marty's Catering in Medford back in 1987, the Montvale Plaza proprietor has continually donated his services to the Bread of Life.
At first sending over meals and pantry items left over from functions, the grandfather has since expanded his charitable efforts to include the sponsorship of the charity's annual golf fundraiser, as well as the provision of Thanksgiving and Easter dinners for the hungry.
"Since the beginning," responded Feagley, when asked how long Murphy has been involved in charitable efforts for Bread of Life. "I still remember the first time he ever called me up. He said he had some food left over, and it was great food. I don't know if you've ever eaten his food, but it's amazing. He's magical with food."
"He actually chases me," later half-jokingly quipped the charity director, when asked to describe Murphy's fervor for giving back. "He calls me about a month before every Thanksgiving to remind me he's doing dinner. He seriously does. Marty's such a unique guy. He's one of the most generous and kind-hearted people I've ever known."
Though one who avoids the limelight, the Stoneham merchant, whose charitable efforts led to his being named Citizen of the Year in his hometown, stepped into the public spotlight in 2005, when the Board of Selectmen, facing a crippling budget deficit, reluctantly axed some $5,000 in funding for their annual senior Christmas party.
At the time, Murphy had just survived an existential threat to his future in Stoneham, as the owner of a neighboring strip mall, who had apparently clashed with the last Montvale Plaza owner over parking, notified town officials the facility was technically not zoned for banquet hall uses.
As a result, the lifelong caterer, who started his career in the food industry as a street vendor serving up hotdogs and popcorn while still in high school, was facing the prospect of having to shut down the business he had invested his life savings into just a handful of years earlier.
Stoneham's citizens eventually stepped forward to pass a Town Meeting zoning change that ensured the Montvale Plaza's future. So when the townspeople needed help not long afterwards, Murphy, rather than being bitter about the entire fiasco, emerged to take over the party.
In 2005, when the town's fathers realized they still couldn't pay for the holiday gathering, he returned to the Board of Selectmen and agreed to continue sponsoring the annual event, where at least 300 guests have enjoyed a free dinner and entertainment at the Montvale Plaza ever since.
"He just has a keen sense of what's just and fair. He just steps up and does it. You don't find a lot of business owners who have such a strong commitment for the communities they're in," said Iovanni.
"I don't know why I'm having trouble with words here," later remarked Feagley, when asked to describe the businessman's kindness. "For the past 30 years I've known him, he just wants to give to the community and do it quietly. He never wants it to be show-boated, and that's the way he's been ever since I've known him. That's just Marty. If he doesn't get asked to do something, he'll just go out and do it."
According to Murphy, he looks back on his 40-year career as a successful caterer and function hall manager with no regrets, especially when it comes to his unseen behind-the-scene efforts to give back.
"I made a lot of lifelong friends here in Stoneham that I would have never gotten to know otherwise. Over the years, we've fed every band from the Rolling Stones to you name it, and we've gotten to serve at Fenway Park and the old Foxboro Stadium. We used to do the Boston Harbor Boats and served U.S. presidents."
"I had such great staff. We had all the right people in all the right places," he later boasted. "This isn't about one person. My staff has been behind me all these years, and that's why we have a great reputation in the business."
When later told about what Stoneham residents had to say about his generosity, the lifelong cook explained those values were always instilled in him by his own parents.
Though he admits he never likes to boast about those behind-the-scenes efforts, Murphy insists that by placing a sense of corporate responsibility at the center of his business philosophy, those kindnesses were always reflected back.
"You have to live for what you believe in. I believe in community and people and helping those in need. That's my philosophy in business, and that's why we've been successful," he said.
According to Murphy, in some ways, he got into the catering business at the perfect time, as he has always thrived in a person-to-person climate rather than the Internet-driven atmosphere that has swept the globe.
"Who am I to judge? Nothing will be as it was before," responded the Medford High School Hall-of-
Fame inductee, when asked if he believed those changes were bad for business. "That's just a part of life. Things change and you move on. I'm not looking for any negativity. This was all positive, and I have no regrets."