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

(Continued from Part 1)

B. Harvard Square in the Mid 19th Century

Between 1660 and 1793, most commercial activity in the village occurred on John F. Kennedy Street, the road to the Brighton bridge, and what is now Harvard Square was the municipal center. After the construction of the West Boston Bridge in 1793, the principal stores of the village migrated to the south side of the Square between the present Dunster and John F. Kennedy streets. On the Dunster corner (now the site of the Cambridge Savings Bank) stood Willard's Tavern of 1797; on the other corner was Farwell's general store, a broad-gabled, wooden structure of two stories erected on the corner of John F. Kennedy Street just before 1800, and the Warland Tailor Shop, put up in about 1820. Three of these buildings were combined behind a new facade in 1896, and survive today as the Read Block (Fig. 4). Around the corner at 12-14 John F. Kennedy Street a three-story brick building of 1820 was restored in 1998 and recalls the early period despite its remodeled shopfronts.

Harvard Square ca. 1865. Click on image for a larger view.
Figure 4.    Harvard Square ca. 1865, looking south.  Farwell's Store is at left center; Lyceum Hall, site of the Coop, is at right. 
Cambridge Planning Board collection, Cambridge Historical Commission.


The rebuilding of the village began with the construction of College House in 1832 and the relocation of the meetinghouse from the present site of Lehman Hall to the corner of Church Street in 1833. In 1841, Lyceum Hall replaced the old Court House on the present site of the Harvard Coop, and in 1854 the Harvard Block - a private dormitory with stores on the ground floor - was built on the corner of Dunster Street. Alterations to College House mirrored the changing architecture of the Square. Originally a dormitory, it always had stores on the ground floor. It was extended in 1845 and 1859 until it stretched 260 feet to Lyceum Hall. A further enlargement in 1870 added a mansard roof as well as a five-story central pavilion (Fig. 5).

College House in 1878. Click on image for larger view.
Figure 5.    College House (1420-1440 Massachusetts Avenue) ca. 1878. 
Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives.


Mount Auburn Street was cut through the Brattle estate about 1810, and around 1840 it seemed that a neighborhood of fine homes would spring up nearby. However, the residential character of Brattle Square changed when the Brattle House, a 106-room hotel, was constructed there in1849 (Fig. 6). The hotel soon failed, and the building became the printing plant of the University Press. Brattle Square, Palmer Street, and Church Street became the favored locations for stables, blacksmiths, carriage factories, and, until a no-license referendum passed in 1887, saloons. A police and fire station was built in Eliot Square in 1874, and the next year a four-story office building was erected at 13-15 Brattle Street. The first large commercial building outside Harvard Square, it housed the offices of the Union Railway, the local horse-car line; the remaining portion of the building now houses The Gap and other stores.

Brattle Square ca. 1890. Click on image for a larger view.
Figure 6.    The University Press, formerly the Brattle House Hotel, with the Eliot Square Municipal Building in the rear, ca. 1890. 
Cambridgeport: Its Representative Businessman, 1892.


The advent of the street railway in 1854 had an immediate effect on the village. Harvard Square became the nexus of street railway routes leading to Arlington, Belmont, Watertown, and Newton, and shopkeepers soon came to depend on the trade of commuters changing horsecars. By 1857, the Union Railway owned both sides of Dunster Street between Harvard Square and Mount Auburn Street. The company constructed stables, carbarns, and shops on both sides of the street, of which the only survivor is now part of The Garage at the corner of Dunster and Mount Auburn streets. In the 1890s, however, these facilities were given up for extensive carbarns, stables, and storage yards built on the old Ox Marsh near the river. Dunster Street became an extension of the Gold Coast, while the mass transit facilities of the Boston Elevated Railway and the University Press gave the southwest sector of Harvard Square an industrial character that it retained until the late 1970s.

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