Cambridge Historical Commission | Harvard Square Conservation District | Harvard Square History and Development

Harvard Square History and Development
by Charles M. Sullivan, Executive Director
Cambridge Historical Commission

This history of Harvard Square was written by Charles M. Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission staff. It originally appeared in the Final Report of the Harvard Square Historic District Study Committee in 1999 and was adapted from the manuscript of the Commission's forthcoming book, Old Cambridge, to be published by The MIT Press.

Table of Contents:

  1. Settlement
  2. Harvard Square in the Mid 19th Century
  3. The Gold Coast and the River Houses
  4. Metropolitan Harvard Square
  5. Postwar Development
    1. Planning for Redevelopment
    2. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
    3. The Redevelopment of the Southwest Sector
    4. Incremental Renewal in Brattle Square
    5. Boom and Recession
    6. Boom Times Again in Harvard Square

Note:  You can click on most of the images in this document for a larger view of the photograph.

Harvard Square History and Development

Harvard Square began in 1630 as the Colonial village of Newtowne, which was chosen by the Proprietors of Massachusetts Bay to be the capital of their new colony. The village was the first planned town in English North America, and the streets laid out in 1631 are still in use today. Important structures survive from almost every period since the early 18th century. In few New England cities are the connections to the early years of settlement so apparent to present-day observers, or so threatened by intense pressure for development.

A. Settlement

The location chosen for Newtowne, as Cambridge was first known, was a low hill rising from the tidal marshes on the north side of the Charles River, at the entrance to a small creek (today recalled by Eliot Street), five miles upstream from Boston. The banks were firm enough to provide a landing and the bottom could be dredged, an operation that was carried out in 1631-32. The Charles was deep enough at high tide to accommodate ocean-going ships, yet the winding channel and the limited maneuvering space at the landing would protect the town against pirate raids.

The town site was well graded for laying out an orderly system of streets, two springs promised adequate water, and the surrounding countryside was suitable for farming. In addition, the "highway" connecting Charlestown and Watertown--in reality only a cross-country path--ran nearby. Opposite the new town, the south bank of the river was firm enough to allow the settlers to operate a ferry. The site was officially selected on December 28, 1630, and streets and house lots were laid out in March, 1631.

Newtowne seems to have differed from other communities founded by the Massachusetts Bay Company not only in its fortified character but in its well-ordered appearance, which probably reflected its early status as the capital. Whether the grid of streets laid out for the "Towne" was the product of conscious planning, or simply a logical adjustment to a compact fortified site, the result was the earliest ordered urban plan in New England (Fig. 1).

Village of Newtown in 1635.Figure 1.     The village of Newtowne (Harvard Square) in 1635, with the Great Bridge of 1660. 
Cambridge Historical Commission.


Streets in the village were "laid out in squares" on a somewhat irregular grid placed across the gentle hill rising above the marsh, a topographic feature still evident today (Fig. 2). Four streets ran parallel to the river and three at right angles to it; the orientation, approximately 45 degrees from true north, may have been chosen to maximize the southern exposure of the house lots. The grid was bounded on the west by Town Creek, which ran along the base of the hill through present-day Eliot, Brattle, and Harvard Squares, on the north by the future Harvard Yard, and on the east by lanes (now Bow and Arrow streets), which led to the planting fields and oyster banks.

Streets surviving from original 1635 street plan.  Streets shaded in gray are from the 1635 street configuration.
Figure 2.    Streets of 1635 surviving in the Harvard Square National Register District. 
Cambridge Historical Commission.


The town grid contained sixty-four house lots ranging from 1/8 to 3/4 of an acre, but even the smallest was large enough for a house and small barn. A sense of compactness, order, and safety was ensured by the decree in January 1633 that "no houses be permitted beyond the pallisade" and that "by joint consent the town shall not be enlarged until all vacant places be filled with houses." Another order of 1633 required that "all houses within the bounds of the town shall be covered with slate or board, not with thatch." The impression of a tight little town is conveyed by William Wood in his New England's Prospect (1633): "This is one of the neatest and best compacted towns in New England, having many fair structures with many handsome contrived streets."

During the early decades Dunster Street was the principal high street. The first meetinghouse stood on the southwest corner of Mount Auburn Street, and at the foot of Dunster was the ferry landing, instituted in 1635. The street also contained the first tavern and thirteen of the town's fifty-seven houses. Another focal point was Winthrop Square. When Sir Richard Saltonstall returned to England in 1631, he forfeited the half-acre assigned him, and this was set aside as the marketplace. By 1635, Cambridge was one of four Massachusetts market towns, an honor in keeping with its importance as the capital.

In the early years of settlement, the future Harvard Square lay on the outskirts of the village. Traversed by Town Creek, it was a swale through which travellers passed to get from the village to the Charlestown-Watertown path. After Harvard College was established in 1636 in a pasture north of town, the center of the settlement gradually shifted. A new meetinghouse was erected there about 1650 to serve both the town and the College, and in 1660 a bridge was constructed over the Charles River at the foot of Water Street (later Boylston, now John F. Kennedy Street). Because this was the closest bridge to the mouth of the river until 1793, most traffic headed to Boston was funneled through Harvard Square and John F. Kennedy Street, which soon superseded Dunster as the prime business location.

At the end of the Revolution, Cambridge consisted of the ancient village, surrounded by fields and farms and separated from Boston by a wide tidal river and miles of mudflats and salt marshes. For a century and a half, the village had been the seat of the Commonwealth's largest county and most prestigious college, but there was little else to attract the traveler, and only a few stores served the students and the embryonic suburb of Old Cambridge (Fig. 3). Even the name Harvard Square did not become commonplace until the middle of the 19th century; up to the 1830s it was known as the "Market-place" (Holmes, Letters) and later as "the Village" (Howe, 1944). The few structures of this period that still exist, such as overall layout of streets, the stone retaining walls on Winthrop, Eliot, and South Streets, and the wood frame houses on Winthrop, Dunster, and South Streets, are rare survivors.

Harvard Square in 1830.  Click on image for a larger view.
Figure 3.    View of the village and the Fourth Meeting House (on the site of Lehman Hall), 1830. 
Cambridge Historical Society collection, Cambridge Historical Commission.


The construction of bridges between Cambridge and Boston in 1793 and 1809 upended the economic geography of the entire region. The growth of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge triggered a series of momentous episodes in the history of Harvard Square, which became the somewhat sleepy center of a diminished neighborhood known as Old Cambridge. Political maneuvering cost Harvard Square the courthouse in 1816 and the meetinghouse in 1831. Aggrieved, Old Cambridge tried to become a separate town in 1842, 1846, and 1855.


Return to CHC Homepage Return to City's Homepage