The Safe

Originally Published 06/20/2011 05:46:38 AM


Photo Source: Jessica Beebe

There was a backroom that nobody knew about who didn’t belong inside. That’s where the business of Boston really happened. Officially the business of the People of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took place at 45 School Street in the Old City Hall, but the Realpolitik of the Olde Boston Brahmin, the Captains of State Street, was established behind the scenes at 100 Tremont St.

Or that’s the official address now, anyway. The Beantown Pub had many incarnations over the years, in various parts of the building, and the official entrance to City Hall on Tremont, they called it, was certainly not marked. But the one constant was the backroom, just past the water closets, marked PRIVATE. And was it ever so.

The consortium, known in the daily rags as “The Safe,” included Calvert Washington, senior partner in Hemp & White; Lowell Bennett, president of the Dartmouth Bank; Karl Giles, president of the Boston Industrial Corp.; and Reid Lawrence, board chairman of the Boston Trust and Deposit Bank. The goal was a “New Boston” built on the twin pillars of “fiscal responsibility” and a “revived downtown.” The setting was leather booths; the fuel was Delmonico, medium rare, brandy and whiskey, Robustos and Churchills. Chummy, clubby and convivial, The Safe still had business to tend to: the remaking of The Athens of America in the image of their lineage.

Nothing moved in Boston without the approval of The Safe. The highway carving through downtown? The Safe covered the overrides. New office tower to headquarter Boston Trust and Deposit? Nothing a few handshakes couldn’t build. Leveling the West End neighborhood to build high-rises? The feds offered the Urban Renewal funds, but not until The Safe deemed the neighborhood “blighted”, thus worthy of razing. The Safe covered the waterfront and well beyond, and they were determined to build a New Olde Towne in their own vision.

Willy “One-Eye” O’Malley was not one who belonged inside the backroom. But he ran the biggest concrete company in town, and figured he was due for a piece of the action on the new headquarters for Boston Trust and Deposit. One-Eye, a self-described Tough Little Mick, had a piece of most construction jobs at the time, and with Federal Urban Renewal funds flowing in, work was plentiful. But more was always better.

One-Eye knew about The Safe: the Globe had managed to get wind of the operation and had leaked names. And he wanted in.

He knew that the Bruni family would probably be putting in a bid for the project, so One-Eye did some figuring, came up with what he thought the Bruni family would bid, and undercut their hypothetical bid by 10%. He then sent this bid directly to Reid Lawrence.

Umberto Bruni was not amused. The head of the Bruni Family and One-Eye O’Malley had long got along, since concrete was not a huge piece of the Bruni operations, and since they were almost never in direct competition. They had even worked together occasionally, and One-Eye was very grateful for the work that Bruni would throw his way occasionally. 

This was a bold move, and most disturbing.

The Safe awarded the contract to O’Malley.

Bruni was informed of their decision, and took it with dignity publicly. However, he was very troubled by this development, and the surprising shift of character from his long-time long-distance competitor.

O’Malley was beside himself. He had won a huge contract, and he had undercut those dumb-ass garlic eaters that had always gotten business he could have gotten! What a great day!

It didn’t last. Two weeks later, One-Eye O’Malley kissed his wife and left his triple-decker in Dorchester, never to return. Five months later, just as work was to begin on the Boston Trust and Deposit tower, a 5’ x 5’ concrete block appeared one morning outside the construction site. One-Eye was chiseled out of the block, a cabbage shoved down his throat, his mouth covered in duct tape emblazoned with shamrock stickers. The Safe had to re-visit their concrete bids. Incredibly, Bruni won the revised bid.

It would take years, decades, generations before the impact of The Safe, the good and the very bad, would be fully appreciated. But Boston would never be the same city again…


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