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

(Continued from Part 2 )

C. The Gold Coast and the River Houses

Charles W. Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869 and launched an expansion that saw enrollment in Cambridge rise from 754 in 1870 to 3,364 at the end of his tenure in 1909. The many private dormitories that were constructed in or near Harvard Square between 1876 and 1904 introduced a level of luxury that was unprecedented in Cambridge and rare even in Boston. These buildings introduced steam heat, electricity, private bathrooms, and elevators to Cambridge. Rival investors strived to attract the most affluent students, and exclusive clubs contributed to the ambience of the area. Massachusetts Avenue and Mount Auburn Street between Dunster and Bow streets, along with Holyoke, Linden, and Plympton streets, thus became known as the Gold Coast (Fig. 7).

Mount Auburn Street, ca. 1910. Click on image for larger view.
Figure 7.    The Gold Coast (Mount Auburn Street, looking east from Holyoke Street) at Harvard University. May 1, 1912. Photograph by Nathaniel S. Stebbins.
Courtesy of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. (Negative #21207-NS)


President Eliot thought that German universities, which did not provide dormitories for their students, offered the best model for academic excellence and personal self-reliance. Harvard during his administration gave undergraduates great personal freedom, and tacitly encouraged investors to construct private dormitories. His successor, A. Lawrence Lowell, reversed this approach; following English precedent, he established the house system and required students to live in college buildings. The implementation of these radically different policies for student housing transformed Harvard Square in the 1890s and again in the 1920s.

Eliot built three dormitories in the Yard immediately after taking office, but then built no more for almost twenty years. After 1870, the university made little effort to keep its accommodations in line with enrollment, and the proportion of undergraduates that could be accommodated on campus dropped from about 50 percent in 1890 to 27 percent in 1900. In 1891, Eliot called for inexpensive student housing to be provided in the community, saying in his annual report that "cheap board and cheap rooms in Cambridge are necessary means for building up here a great, popular institution.” However, the Cambridge Chronicle noted that a student seeking rooms for $50 per year, a price Eliot thought was reasonable, would have to travel at least a mile from the Yard if accommodations in the college could not be found.

Eliot's appeal was met by construction of luxurious private dormitories that could command up to $700 per year. Between 1891 and 1904, seventeen major private dormitories were put up around Harvard Square. On the Gold Coast alone, ten luxury residence halls were joined by more than a dozen undergraduate clubhouses. Claverly Hall (1892) anchored the emerging Gold Coast and set the standard for succeeding dormitories. It was the largest dormitory thus far, with fifty suites priced from $250 to $500 per year, and offered such "modern improvements" as electric bells, speaking tubes, a swimming pool, and squash courts. Other dormitories offered valet and maid service, round-the-clock doormen and elevator operators, room service, and bellhops. Both Dunster (1895) and Craigie (1897) halls incorporated swimming pools. Randolph Hall (1897) had a gymnasium and squash and racquetball courts.

Another ingredient of the Gold Coast was provided by the undergraduate social clubs. Harvard students formed clubs in the 18th century, but had no clubhouses until after the Civil War. Having such a base was particularly desirable because the university was not always willing to grant space for club activities, particularly when their antics earned the administration's disapproval. Several clubs first purchased dwellings near the Yard. The first clubhouse built for the purpose was the Hasty Pudding (1887), at 12 Holyoke Street. Subsequently, almost all the clubhouses were constructed on the Gold Coast. One club, Delta Upsilon, lost popularity because its otherwise attractive clubhouse was too far from the Gold Coast, so in 1930 it put up a new building at the corner of Mount Auburn and Dunster streets.

The development of the Gold Coast had an immediate effect on the economy of Harvard Square, whose businesses began to reflect the needs of the well-to-do students. The Boston brokerage firm of Kidder, Peabody & Co. opened a storefront office in Little's Block. Leavitt & Pierce, the tobacconist, opened a store in Fairfax Hall in 1883, and J. August, the clothier, opened next door on the first floor of the Porcellian Club about 1910. The Art Nouveau storefront at 1304 Massachusetts Avenue was designed by Coolidge & Carlson for Coes & Young, the Boston shoe store, in 1907. Bookstores, tailors, dining rooms, furniture shops, and other student-oriented businesses proliferated. Many of the landmarks of this period still exist and contribute to the rich texture of Harvard Square.

Gold Coast residents adopted the automobile with enthusiasm. By 1902 two-thirds of the cars kept at the Harvard Motor Company on Palmer Street were owned by undergraduates. The concrete building at 1230 Massachusetts Avenue presently owned by the Harvard Cooperative Society was one of the earliest garages in the Square; built in 1906, it accommodated students living at Hamden Hall, the private dormitory at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Linden Street.
By the turn of the century, the social climate of the Gold Coast became a cause of concern among some alumni and university officials. While the Harvard community debated the university's role in student life, a group of alumni secretly initiated a land venture that had great implications for Harvard and for Cambridge.

In the 19th century there were four or five blocks of houses along Mount Auburn, Winthrop and South streets, some remaining from the first period of settlement; these were occupied by tradesmen, shopkeepers, and laborers. Town Creek, the landing of the early ferry across the Charles, still existed as the dock of Richardson & Bacon's coal wharf at the foot of Dunster Street. To the west of John F. Kennedy Street, the old Ox Marsh was a fetid area of sheds and hovels where the West End Street Railway and its successors constructed carbarns and stables. In 1897 the company built an electric generating station on the present site of Eliot House, at the corner of John F. Kennedy Street and Memorial Drive. The Lower Marsh, the area between Mount Auburn Street, Holyoke Place, and Putnam Avenue, was filled in after the Civil War to accommodate the growing Irish community that attended St. Paul's Church.

In 1901, the alumni set out to acquire land for the university between Mount Auburn Street and the new Charles River Road (now Memorial Drive). Harvard was aware of this project by the fall of 1902, but President Eliot was ambivalent about it. While Eliot encouraged the fund-raisers, he had recently assured the General Court that the university's interest was in beautifying the area and that no land would be removed from taxation. Within a few years, however, the alumni had acquired almost all the private properties in the area and transferred them to the University. When A. Lawrence Lowell became president in May 1909, he ordered a master plan for the area that foretold the house system, modeled after the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.

The end of the private dormitories was foretold by the vote of the faculty in December 1913 to require entering students to live in dormitories beginning with the 1914-15 school year. The profits from Randolph Hall dropped from $18,250 in 1914 to $892 in 1915. While President Lowell regretted the difficulty this caused some of the owners, he did not want to provoke the city and refused to buy the distressed properties.

Meanwhile, many of the smaller private dormitories had already been converted to apartments by adding kitchens to the suites. Harvard responded to the housing shortage by building more dormitories of its own. Lowell House and McKinlock and Mather halls were built on former alumni land in 1929. The university purchased property east of DeWolfe Street around 1926-27 for Dunster House (1929) and, more dramatically, acquired the generating station of the Boston Elevated Railway. When this was razed in 1930 to make room for Eliot House, Harvard dominated the riverfront of Old Cambridge. Only the John Hicks House of 1762 was spared; it was moved to 64 John F. Kennedy Street in 1929 to become the library of Kirkland House. The second phase of River House construction was almost as dramatic. Between 1958 and 1968, 68 more buildings containing 145 housing units were razed in Riverside to make room for Leverett, Quincy, and Mather houses and Peabody Terrace. Only a handful of houses on South, Dunster, Winthrop, and Mount Auburn Streets remain from this ancient neighborhood.

D. Metropolitan Harvard Square

At the turn of the century, when the Gold Coast dormitories and undergraduate clubs were transforming the old village, Harvard Square seemed dowdy and ramshackle compared to Boston's fashionable Back Bay, to which Cambridge was linked by the Harvard Bridge in 1890. The designation of Front, Main, and Harvard streets and North Avenue as Massachusetts Avenue in 1890 drove home the comparison. Property owners were slow to modernize, and the Square did not join the modern era until after World War I.

While places serving students were mainly along Massachusetts Avenue facing the Yard, the stores in Harvard Square itself were patronized by the thousands of commuters who changed streetcars there. The increasing demand for retail space displaced some of the old businesses to the periphery of the business district, although carriage builders (now being succeeded by garages) and carpenters' shops still predominated on Church and Palmer streets. The distinctly 19th-century appearance of these peripheral streets persisted well into the 20th century, a contrast to the modern buildings on the Gold Coast.

An early attempt to upgrade the business district was made in 1896, when the Read heirs and the West End Street Railway collaborated to unify all the buildings from Willard's Tavern to Farwell's store with a simple neoclassical facade. The first modern commercial building in the Square was erected in 1909 at Brattle and John F. Kennedy streets. Here Edwin H. Abbot, a Midwestern railroad financier, built a small but elegant brick office building that anticipated the burst of commercial construction that followed the completion of the subway. Brattle Square was still a disreputable area of stables and shabby storefronts, while the site of the University Press had been empty since 1893 and would largely remain so until 1990.

The electrification of the horsecars in 1889 had brought great congestion to Harvard Square; the Boston Herald called the situation "confusion worse compounded," and said it was "an ugly a terminus as can be found in a day's journey" (quoted in the Cambridge Chronicle, July 7, 1894). The reorganization of routes that followed the completion of Boston's Tremont Street Subway in 1897 made conditions even worse. Through cars continued out North Avenue and Mount Auburn Street, but the East Cambridge, Broadway, Watertown, and Newton lines all terminated in Harvard Square. On summer Sundays, as many as 20,000 people changed cars, and for football games or other college events there could be twice as many. There were two lines of car tracks on each side of Harvard Square but no platforms and only a crowded waiting room in the former Willard's Tavern.

The first plan to alleviate this situation was to construct an elevated railway, which would have approached Harvard Square by way of Mount Auburn Street. This plan was abandoned because of community protests, and ground was broken on August 5, 1909, for a subway. Surface construction was essentially complete by October 1911, and when the line opened the following March, the response was enthusiastic. Passengers from the northern and western suburbs--at that time the bulk of the traffic--were able to transfer below ground. Only the lines on Massachusetts Avenue, Broadway, and Cambridge Street still stopped on the surface to transfer passengers to the subway, and the congestion described so colorfully a few years before was alleviated until the automobile became common after World War I.

The headhouse of the subway, or kiosk, was a simple oval brick structure with colonnades on the east and west sides. The design harmonized with the architecture of the university, and the materials were the same "Harvard" brick and limestone trim specified for the fences and gates that had recently been erected around the Yard. Unfortunately, the headhouse was dangerous for pedestrians and motorists alike, as the two sets of car tracks on each side left little room for other traffic.

After a long fight led by the Harvard Square Business Men's Association, in 1927 the Elevated erected a replacement. Designed to be transparent to oncoming traffic, the new kiosk comprised a thin, copper-covered roof of shallow, intersecting barrel vaults supported by piers of alternating waterstruck brick and limestone in a pattern similar to that of Harvard's Class of 1877 Gate, behind Widener Library. This structure, bedecked with signs promising "Eight Minutes to Park Street," symbolized Harvard Square to generations of students and visitors. Rebuilt and modernized in connection with the extension of the subway in 1978-86, the kiosk survives today as the Out Of Town Newsstand.

The impact of the subway was immediately felt by the shopkeepers in Harvard Square. Free transfers had allowed fifteen minutes between cars, but now commuters could not come to the surface without paying an extra fare. Only stores catering to students felt no adverse effects. Since 1910, the shopkeepers had been represented by the Harvard Square Business Men's Association, which was founded in reaction to the disruption of subway construction and "to promote the commercial and industrial interests of Harvard Square" (HSBA Bulletin, April 1911). In 1912, the Association formed a "committee to consider the future of Harvard Square" and petitioned the mayor to ask President Lowell to appoint "experts to prepare a plan for [the] future development of Harvard Square."

President Lowell enlisted several architecture professors, and in March 1912, the two committees met with the mayor and agreed that the study should consider the Square in the wider context of Cambridge and its surrounding towns. The committee distinguished between Central Square, "the natural business centre of Cambridge," and Harvard Square, "the natural centre of a more expensive residence district, with such shops as serve the neighborhood tributary to it." It was suggested that this differentiation was "inevitable and highly desirable" and should be reinforced as a matter of public policy. In an ideal metropolitan area, both the "collegiate square" and the "centre of a high-class residence district" should be "quickly reached from the city, but . . . quiet in use and appearance." Harvard Square met both criteria and "was already, in many ways, admirably fitted for its relations to the four main factors in its development -- shopping, residence, traffic, and the activities of the College." With great optimism, the committee noted that, "the successful development of Harvard Square requires . . . only organized co-operation toward determined ends" (Ibid.). The Boston Evening Transcript described the proposals:

Harvard Square would be redeveloped with a modern and commodious hotel where College House now stands, a large convention hall in Palmer Street, a building for a school of dramatic art, a wider Boylston [John F. Kennedy] Street, a wider Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Central squares, shops with arcades between Harvard and Quincy squares, [and] a boulevard from Quincy Square to the Charles River (2/25/1913).

The committee advocated a uniform architectural style to "[fix] the character of the Square." "The close proximity of the dignified Colonial buildings of Harvard College, and the similar character of the better buildings already existing on this part of Massachusetts Avenue, suggest that this general character be preserved." It also commented that, "by preserving and emphasizing these admirable architectural traditions of Colonial and Georgian architecture, Harvard Square might win a character and an attractiveness which would be unique. The Business Men's Association also supported a recommendation for a "permanent expert commission with advisory powers" to review projects in the Square The city took no action, however, perhaps because the General Court was already considering legislation for municipal planning boards, which passed in 1914.

The rebuilding of the commercial district resumed once the subway was completed. In 1913, George Dow, a Cambridge real estate man, purchased some lots that had been cleared for the subway and erected a modern office building in the Georgian style. Three years later, the Harvard Trust Company demolished two bays of College House next to the Coop and put up a one-story bank. When prosperity returned after the war, the Cambridge Savings Bank built a new building on the Square and sold its 25-year-old building on Dunster Street. The renewal of the Square was completed in 1924 when the Harvard Cooperative Society demolished Lyceum Hall and built a new store that complemented Harvard’s new Georgian dormitories.

After World War I, the Harvard Square shopping district expanded to include Brattle Square, where a new post office was built in 1919, and the Sage family replaced the old Jacob Bates house with a Georgian-style market in 1926. George Dow acquired most of the remaining frontage between Palmer and Church streets, which was occupied by a motley collection of storefronts and only one substantial building, 11-25 Brattle Street. When his son Richard graduated from Harvard in 1935, he was given the task of converting the family's holdings into a modern shopping district. At first employing the Cambridge architect William L. Galvin, the Dows removed the unproductive upper stories of 17-25 Brattle Street and refaced the entire row with an up-to-date Moderne facade in cast stone by 1941. They assembled a mix of retailers that would appeal to West Cambridge housewives and even made overtures for the Filene's store that settled in Belmont center about 1954.

Richard Dow's policies defined the retail character of Brattle Square for two generations. By the 1950s, his tenants included an A&P supermarket, two florists, two jewelers, clothing stores, an appliance store, and a dry cleaner's. Dow, who managed the properties until his death in 1988, maintained elements of this mix as a matter of sound retail principles when market forces were rewarding high-volume, mass-market chain stores and boutiques.

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