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History of City Hall, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

 

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City Hall is Cambridge's most celebrated civic building. Designed in 1888 by the architectural firm of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow, it is a fine example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, the preferred style for public buildings in the United States during the 1880s.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the city experienced unprecedented growth, and the need for additional civic buildings became apparent. The first focus was a new public library, and members of a committee appointed by Mayor William E. Russell sought "wealthy, generous and public-spirited citizens" to contribute to this project. As part of this campaign, Mayor Russell approached his former classmate Frederick Hastings Rindge, whose response surpassed all expectations. In July 1887, he wrote to the Mayor, offering land and full funding for a new public library. Later in the year, he offered to build the city three additional civic buildings: a new city hall, a manual training school, and a high school (which was not realized with Rindge funds).

Frederick Hastings Rindge was born in Cambridge in 1857, the son of Samuel Baker and Clarissa Harrington Rindge. His father was a successful businessman, venture capitalist, and owner of a dry goods business in Boston. Rindge grew up in Cambridge and entered Harvard College in 1875. Due to illness, he did not graduate until 1879. He then spent several years traveling through Europe and America, and enjoyed a brief period as a sheep rancher in Colorado. In 1883 his father died, his mother followed in 1885.

Two years later, at the age of 29, Rindge inherited his parents' estate of nearly $3 million, married Rhoda May Knight of Michigan, and moved to California, hoping the climate would improve his health. Just before he left Cambridge, Mayor Russell approached him about the public library, and Rindge, wishing to use part of his new wealth for the public good, decided to concentrate his philanthropic efforts in his native city. All of his gifts came with the condition that didactic inscriptions be included in the designs and that his name never appear on the buildings.

Rindge proved to be a shrewd businessman in California and multiplied his inheritance by sound investments. He died in California in 1905, at the age of 49.

To read the text of the inscription that is located above the front door of City Hall, please see our Frequently Asked Questions page.

Excerpted from CAMBRIDGE CITY HALL: 1890-1990 by Harriet S. White and the staff of the Cambridge Historical Commission, published in 1990.

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