One of the most popular fine-dining restaurants north of Boston in the mid- to late-1900s was the Red Tavern at 5 Pleasant St. This unique and historic building dates back to 1900 when Edward F. Searles had it built as his private guesthouse.
Previously on that site was a large horse stable building with an attached carriage house belonging to the Exchange Hotel on Broadway (later the Masonic Lodge, 275 Broadway). Searles bought the hotel with the buildings behind it on Pleasant Street in 1897. He then commissioned widely renowned architect Henry Vaughan to design an elegant guesthouse on the site of the stable.
Searles was a restless and rather eccentric individual with a lot of money. He was constantly buying property or enhancing the many properties he owned. He was also known for relocating buildings to serve other purposes. He moved three or more older homes to the site of his new guesthouse and joined them together to make one building. It’s not certain where these houses came from, but one of them might have been a two-story dwelling facing Pleasant Street on the other side of the stable.
While this project was underway, Searles was also developing Washington Park (now St. Monica’s church and school property) at the corner of Lawrence and Park streets to showcase Thomas Ball’s magnificent Washington Monument. In doing so, he removed all of the homes from that corner. Two or more of them were likely brought up to the guesthouse site.
Searles was very proud of his English ancestry. He incorporated the English Revival architecture into many of his projects. Such was the case with the guesthouse. Everything from the elegant exterior to the handsome interior décor was done in the style of old England.
The Red Tavern served as Searles’ private guesthouse from 1900 to 1910. He then opened it to the public as an inn and function hall. An advertisement for the tavern in the Methuen Transcript newspaper in 1910 touted “Special Arrangements for Social Functions, Automobile and Week-end Parties.” But the business sputtered through the decade and the building was closed for periods of time.
In July 1920, he hired Mrs. Carrie Barnes to run the facility. Carrie and her husband, Lewis E. Barnes, had previously managed Searles’ Turnpike Tavern in the former James S. Dodge building (later the Page Building, 271 Broadway) at the corner of Broadway and Lawrence Street.
Searles died a month later. In his will, he left the bulk of his vast estate, including the Red Tavern, to his private secretary, Arthur T. Walker of New York. Carrie inherited the tavern from Mr. Walker when he died in 1927.
Since taking over as the tavern’s manager in 1920, Carrie had turned it into a popular venue for large gatherings, meetings and social events. It was licensed as an inn, but many of the rooms were occupied by permanent residents and boarders. She lived in an apartment upstairs.
She sold the tavern in 1942 to Lawrence restaurant owner and caterer Harry Freedman. She was an 84-year-old widow by then. A provision in the deed allowed her to continue living there for as long as she desired. She died there in 1950.
Harry and his wife Edith turned the Red Tavern’s banquet hall into an extension of their catering business. They continued to live in Lawrence and kept their restaurant there. Their son, Howard, was in the business with them. He took over as the tavern’s manager after returning from military service in World War II in 1946. His parents deeded the property to him in 1958.
Howard turned the Red Tavern into one of the area’s most popular restaurants. Customers came from as far away as New York. His specialty was top-of-the-line beef and steaks, which he proudly displayed from a window in the meat cooler at the bottom-floor entrance. He was also noted for his selection of fine and rare wines, which he personally traveled to Europe to buy.
At some point, he added a spacious open-hearth dining room onto the left side of the building. In keeping with the tavern’s old English motif, he kept an antique London taxi cab parked out on Pleasant Street by the front entrance. He and his wife Olga lived in an apartment upstairs of the restaurant. They had no children.
By the 1980s, the public’s dining preferences changed and business at the restaurant started to taper off. Howard sold the tavern in 1986, ending a 40-year run as one of the area’s top restaurateurs. He died in 2003.
The new owners, Mike and Lee Ann Condon, operated the Red Tavern as a function facility. They hosted many special events there over the years, including weddings, reunions, political parties and the annual Methuen Festival of Trees. They sold the property in 2002 to a realty trust company. Much of the building was then converted into commercial offices. A Mexican restaurant occupies the bottom floor.
In 2022, the Residences at the Masonic Lodge, LLC purchased the vacant Masonic Lodge and the Red Tavern. Both buildings are currently undergoing an extensive exterior and interior restoration to return them to their original grandeur. The Masonic Lodge is being converted into 15 upscale residential apartments. The Red Tavern will remain a mixed commercial/residential building, but with four upscale residential apartments.
Ken Doherty is a lifelong resident of Methuen. He served on the Methuen Fire Department from 1980 to 2010. He is the Fire Department historian and a former member of the Methuen Historical Commission. He wrote “Á History of Methuen and its Fire Department” in 1996. He is retired and still living in Methuen with his wife, Paula.