Howard Johnson On Arsenal Street (1962 – 1989)
Howard Johnson’s popularity in its 96-year existence was never higher than it was in the 1960s and 70s when it was reportedly the largest restaurant chains with over 1,000 company-owned and franchised outlets during that span. Unsurprisingly, Watertown would become home to one in 1962.
The story of Howard Johnson’s begins back nearly a century ago when founder Howard Deering Johnson operated a corner pharmacy in Quincy, Massachusetts. Before long, he had noticed the most popular offering in his store was a soda fountain that had been recently installed.
One thing lead to another and before too long, Johnson would venture into ice cream. His recipe, which used butterfat, was deemed more flavorful and proved an instant hit which lead to the creation of numerous varieties, which in turn, became Howard Johnson’s trademark of 28 flavors of ice cream.
As Howard Johnson’s ice cream flavors expanded, so too did the offerings as the venture was turned into a full fledge restaurant. Through some ups and downs, the company would enter the hotel business and business would continue to expand right into the early 1960’s when it was deemed Watertown would be a valuable market.
On August 30, 1961, the Watertown Daily Times would report—
A new Howard Johnson motor lodge and a Howard Johnson restaurant, two separate projects, will be erected on outer Arsenal Street, 1,000 feet east of the intersection of Route 81 and the Arsenal Street highway. The new projects, which will be located at the north side of the highway just inside city limits, will cost approximately $450,000.
The restaurant will be operated on a franchise from the restaurant chain with Howard Johnson foods and specifications followed. The restaurant will have the regular orange color roof and the white cupola.
Howard Johnson’s wouldn’t be the only hotel planned for the area: the former owners of the Rainbow Hotel on outer Bradley Street, Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey Lambert, would start construction on the 15-unit Arsenal Street Hotel opposite of Howard Johnson’s around the same time.
Originally opening with 48 rooms, the Howard Johnson hotel would add another 24 rooms in 1964, bringing its total to 72. The initial 48 rooms were comprised of single double-sized beds where the new construction would move to two double-sized beds per room. The rooms, according to the Watertown Daily Times, would be added to the north side of the site and angled to the west, making it the largest Howard Johnson’s in upstate New York.
In 1966, the restaurant would undergo further expansion, with the opening of a cocktail lounge and banquet facility with a capacity of 200 people. It would be the second expansion for the restaurant in three years. Shortly thereafter, the restaurant would face competition for banquets from Harold’s Music Box, later known as the Golden Lion, just down Arsenal Street couple of blocks. While that may have been a factor in its local business, the real challenge was the 1970’s themselves.
Being a motor lodge and restaurant, a good deal of Howard Johnson’s business was predicated on travelers. The 1973 oil crisis and subsequent embargo the following year impacted travelers, households and businesses alike. If that weren’t enough, negative publicity from a string incidents involving arson that killed six people and a the shooting deaths of three police officers, the general manager, his assistant, and a couple on their honeymoon didn’t help.
Since 1959, H. B. Johnson, Howard’s son, had been running the business after the elder Johnson’s retirement, but Howard would still oversee operations until his death in 1972. H. B., however, tried to expand the company’s portfolio and, some would argue, lost sight of what made them so successful in the first place while others would say it was a failure to change with the times. One success H. B. did have was starting the franchise Ground Round in 1969.
By 1979, Howard Johnson’s would be acquired by Imperial Group PLC of London, England, who would manage it for a few years before selling it once again. By then, the writing was on the wall. Within six years, the franchise would change hands three different times and many of the restaurants would be converted to Bob’s Big Boys. In 1986, the chain would launch a re-imaging of sorts, their advertisement focusing on a turn toward the modern customer’s desires with the catch-line of unexpected surprise, “This is Howard Johnson’s?”
On May 12 1989, the Watertown Daily Times would report that the local Howard Johnson and Crown & Feather restaurants were sold to Perk Development, Corp., of Rochester, N.Y, who operated Perkins Family Restaurants. The company’s chief operations officer, John F. Kendall, would say they would renovate in June with plans of reopening by mid-July as a Perkins restaurant.
As of 2021, the location of the former Howard Johnson’s restaurant is occupied by Advanced Auto Parts while the hotel portion has become Travelodge of Wyndham Watertown. The Wyndham Hotel Group coincidentally now owns the rights to the Howard Johnson hotel and food business.
As for the restaurant business, the only remaining original Howard Johnson restaurant in existence still branded with the name is located in Lake George, N.Y. Though its recent reviews have left some customers to question with disappointment, “THIS is Howard Johnson’s?,” for the most part people praised the nostalgia.