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

(Continued from Part 3)

E. Postwar Development

[Before World War II] there were twenty-two restaurants, most of them small and inexpensive like the Hayes-Bickford and Waldorf cafeterias and some large like the "Georgian," of which there were two branches. For "gourmet" cooking one had to go outside the square to tea-room type establishments housed in basements of nearby apartment houses. The most numerous retail stores were devoted to men's clothing and catered to students. The sole "art" store was a genteel picture-framing shop which also carried gifts; the first exotic shop did not appear until 1939 when refugees from Nazi-dominated Austria opened a tiny cooperative shop in a second floor "window" on Church Street. There were seven bookshops, the usual assortment of hardware, grocery, dress, apothecary, and barber shops, and several banks. The Harvard Coop was less than one-fifth its present size; the new University (now Harvard Square) Theatre was a second-run movie house, and a theatrical event was occasionally scheduled in Brattle Hall (Bunting, Report 4: Old Cambridge of the Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge, 1973).

Thanks to the good management of the Dow family, the disinterest of the university in local commercial property, and the general conservatism of Old Cambridge, the ambience of prewar Harvard Square survived well into the 1960s. The social changes that ultimately transformed the Square appeared in the mid-1950s as a countercultural movement in the fields of design and entertainment. In 1953, Benjamin Thompson, an associate of Walter Gropius at The Architects Collaborative (TAC), founded a retail store that introduced modern Scandinavian furnishings and textiles to American consumers. Design Research (D/R) began as an adjunct to Thompson's architectural practice in a Mansard house on Brattle Street. In 1956, the Brattle Theatre was converted into a movie house showing European films, and in 1958 the Club 47, a coffeehouse that introduced many to modern folk music, opened at 47 Mount Auburn Street. Beginning in the late 1960s, the postwar generation brought radical changes to the Square.

Public perceptions became an important influence on planning policy in Harvard Square in the 1960s. The emerging youth culture discovered Cambridge during the anti-war protests of 1968-72, and for the first time the Square began to draw large numbers of students and young people who were not affiliated with the university. To the distress of many Old Cambridge residents, the markets, variety stores, and cafeterias began to give way to more bookstores, banks, and restaurants. In 1966, a journalist called Harvard Square "an unmitigated mess" (Porges), and in the aftermath of the student riots of 1969-70, in which many storefronts were damaged, public opinion toward the Square took a decidedly negative turn. Two periods of economic growth -- from 1966 to 1971 and from 1980 to 1989 -- then brought more than a dozen major commercial projects to Harvard Square.

1. Planning for Redevelopment

The university undertook the first major postwar project by razing an entire city block, including such notable buildings as Dunster Court, Little Hall, and Holyoke House, to build Holyoke Center (Fig. 8). Construction began in 1960 on Dunster and Mount Auburn streets with the demolition of Cronin's restaurant, which occupied one of the old Union Railroad stables. The massive new building, completed by 1965, was out of scale with its surroundings. Although its stores contributed greatly to Dunster and Holyoke streets, its long-empty plaza and harsh exterior contrasted sharply with the comfortable brick vernacular of Harvard Square. Fortunately, Holyoke Center was the only university project to be built in the Square, and the arcade was never linked to the River Houses as originally intended.

Massachusetts Avenue, ca. 1960. Click on image for larger view.
Figure 8.    1330-1360 Massachusetts Avenue, Harvard Square, ca. 1955;
(these buildings were demolished for construction of Holoke Center, 1962.) 
Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives.

 

In the early 1960s, the possibility that the subway might be extended and the Bennett Street yards declared surplus triggered a general debate over the future of the entire business district. In 1963, the Planning Board suggested that Harvard Square's greatest potential was as a regional center serving an upper-income market, noting that the northwestern suburbs were not yet served by large suburban shopping centers.

Perhaps the most extensive study of the Square was commissioned by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority (CRA) in 1968. The CRA's consultants, Okamoto/Liskamm of San Francisco, considered subway station sites in Brattle and Eliot squares and presented two proposals for a completely redeveloped business district. Both contemplated the clearance and redevelopment of eleven city blocks south and west of the Square, closing all through streets, and diverting traffic through underpasses. One scheme would have enclosed all pedestrian spaces under glass canopies; the other combined open plazas with below ground arcades.

The focus of both designs was a group of four sixteen- to twenty-story office buildings placed at the corners of a large plaza in the approximate location of Brattle Square (Fig. 9). Ten-story apartment buildings similar to Holyoke Center were proposed for Church and Dunster streets. The overall capacity of the plan was 1.3 million square feet of office space, 584,000 square feet of retail space, 855 apartments, 185 town houses, 400 hotel rooms, and 2,030 parking spaces. The response was predictably negative, but the report did sensitize the community to the development potential of the Square.

CRA plan, 1968. Click on image for larger view.
Figure 9.    Cambridge Redevelopment Authority Plan, by Okamoto/Liskamm, for Harvard and Brattle Squares, 1968. View looking south over  Harvard Square, toward the Charles River. 
Cambridge Historical Commission.

 

2. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

The announcement that the John F. Kennedy presidential library would be built on the site of the MBTA's Bennett Street yards came at a time of social unrest, insensitive planning, and growing public participation in public policy issues. The idea of a presidential archive in Cambridge had been discussed as early as 1961, and during a visit in 1963 President Kennedy selected a two-acre site next to the Harvard Business School. After his death, the Kennedy family decided to build a larger facility in Cambridge. The congressionally chartered, nonprofit Kennedy Library Corporation selected I. M. Pei & Partners as architects in 1964, and in 1965 the General Court authorized the MBTA to convey the Bennett Street yards to the federal government.

The corporation proposed to build an archive for the president's papers, a museum of his life and presidency, a public open space, and a parking garage on 5.3 acres of the 12.2-acre site. Tax-producing facilities owned by the corporation would cover another 3 acres, and the university would get 2.2 acres for the Kennedy School of Government and the Institute of Politics. The corporation estimated that the complex would attract up to 1.25 million visitors a year, with daily peaks of 15,000 to 20,000, requiring parking for 700 to 1,000 cars and 35 buses; later estimates rose to 2 million visitors annually.

Pei initially proposed a glass pavilion 105 feet high (not unlike the one he later designed for the Louvre in Paris) and a massive marble-clad 155-foot-high building with a total floor area of 225,000 square feet. The design that was unveiled in 1973, after the first community protests had been heard, was substantially scaled down--to 85 feet in height and 140,000 square feet in floor area. Most of the archive was eliminated, and the architect was instructed to plan for 600,000 visitors per year and 400 parking spaces. However, opponents considered it unlikely that people would stay away simply because the museum was smaller, pointing out that annual attendance at Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery was averaging just over 4 million.

In the eight years since the project was announced, appreciation for Harvard Square had grown, and neighborhood groups were eager to oppose what they perceived as an unwarranted intrusion. The Neighborhood Ten Association mobilized its members (many of whom were prominent in academia and politics) and soon raised $15,000 for a legal and technical review. In January 1975, the association challenged the project in Federal court, but in November the library corporation announced its decision to construct the museum at Columbia Point, leaving Harvard to build the School of Government and the Institute of Politics on the Bennett Street site.

The Kennedy library controversy had far-reaching effects. The issues raised by the community, the intensity with which they were discussed, and the individuals and groups who spoke out were new elements in public policy debates. The concerns first articulated on this occasion - that Harvard Square was endangered by the adverse effects of over-development, including excessive density, loss of traditional buildings, and displacement of small businesses by mass marketers and fast-food restaurants - still inform discussions about development in the area.

3. The Redevelopment of the Southwest Sector

The potential redevelopment of the southwest sector (as the MBTA yards came to be called), the planned extension of the subway, continuing expansion by Harvard University and Radcliffe College, and the generally perceived decline in the quality of the urban environment intensified debate about the future of Harvard Square. In January 1972, in the midst of the Kennedy Library debate, the city's Planning & Development Department (PDD) proposed a "general Harvard Square planning program... intended to set forth in specific goals and policies the community consensus on the development policies for the Harvard Square area." In contrast to the CRA's study, the objective would be "modest and incremental change over time [not] a grand plan for massive redevelopment" (City of Cambridge, Status of Kennedy Library, 1972).

The most useful component of the study was an urban design analysis prepared by the architectural firm of Monacelli Associates. Earlier studies had generally viewed the Square as a flawed environment that should be substantially redeveloped; the Monacelli study clarified for the first time the architectural and urban design characteristics that contributed to the appeal of the Square and presented the status quo as a starting point for incremental improvements. In this respect, the study accepted the perception of the Square's community advocates and contradicted contemporary planning orthodoxy.

The planning program culminated in the release in May 1976 of the Harvard Square Comprehensive Policy Plan, which synthesized the opposing viewpoints that had been so vociferously expressed since the Kennedy library was first proposed. The property owners' concern with maximizing development potential was addressed by encouraging new projects in the southwest sector. A recommendation for new garages addressed the business owners' intense interest in parking, and suggestions for smaller-scale development and more pedestrian amenities acknowledged the community's concern with quality-of-life issues. The policy plan successfully covered the middle ground, but by 1976 public opinion was so polarized that few people could wholeheartedly subscribe to its recommendations. Community groups, fresh from their victory over the Kennedy library, renewed their efforts to moderate further development in the Square.

When the regional economy began to recover from the recession of the early 1970s, the focus of development continued to be the southwest sector. Two sites, in addition to the Bennett Street yards, were considered to pose a threat of over-development. The garages and the University Press printing plant on University Road between Mount Auburn Street and St. John's monastery, then known as the Baird-Atomic site, were razed about 1969, and a developer planned to build a high-rise Holiday Inn. To the west, the residential neighborhood of Nutting Road, Revere Street, and Gerry Street was gradually being acquired by speculators, who razed many of the houses.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued about the future of the MBTA yards. In 1976, the General Court enacted a compromise: five acres would be a Kennedy Memorial Park along Memorial Drive, about three acres would be sold to Harvard for the Kennedy School of Government, and 4.2 acres, known as parcel 1B, would be sold. A subsidiary of the Boston firm of Carpenter & Company agreed to buy parcel 1B in December 1978. Its proposal for what is now Charles Square envisioned an enclosed retail mall with sophisticated stores, movie theaters, office space, a hotel, and a seven-story, 850-car garage. The coalition of neighborhoods that had opposed the Kennedy library brought suit in January 1979 to ensure compliance with the Harvard Square Policy Plan. Many of the activists soon formed the Harvard Square Defense Fund (HSDF), which became one of the most potent community groups in the city’s history.

The coalition negotiated a reduction in the planned retail space from 126,000 to 45,000 square feet and a corresponding increase in the hotel and housing. The theaters were eliminated, parking was cut to 700 spaces and placed underground, and an open courtyard replaced the enclosed atrium in order to make the space more accessible and to retain an open-air shopping experience. The elimination of the atrium was a blow to the original concept of a stylish mall. With the number of shops in Charles Square reduced below the critical mass necessary to attract shoppers, the developer was struggling a decade later to build additional retail space on the site of the adjacent Harvard Motor Inn. When this effort failed, the developer abandoned the effort and rented the shop fronts for other uses.

In one respect, Charles Square set an important precedent. The community and the Planning Board favored an exterior of red Kane-Gonic brick over the pre-cast concrete favored by the architect. This coarse water-struck brick, similar to that first specified by McKim, Mead & White in the 1890s for Harvard's Colonial Revival buildings, soon became the preferred material for all projects in Harvard Square undergoing community review.

Meanwhile, a new vision for Harvard Square began to take shape. The extension of the MBTA's Red Line, for which detailed planning began in 1976, offered an opportunity for much greater physical change than had occurred in 1912. The decision to preserve the 1927 kiosk, coupled with extensive street and sidewalk improvements of the sort advocated in the 1976 policy plan, produced a new pedestrian-oriented environment from Holyoke Street to Brattle Square. The island occupied by the kiosk was joined to the sidewalk in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank to make room for a new headhouse and plaza, while in Brattle and Eliot squares new plazas were designed for impromptu performances (Fig. 28).

Harvard Square in 1985. Click on image for larger view.
Figure 10.    Harvard Square, 1985. 
C. M. Sullivan photographer. Cambridge Historical Commission.

 

The Harvard Square Overlay District, adopted in 1979, was an amendment to the Cambridge Zoning Code that was the first effective effort to legislate the new urban design vision (see Chapter II for a description of the zoning in Harvard Square). The overlay district represented the best available compromise among developers, business interests, and community groups, although in its original form it was not accepted by Harvard University.

The new district was put to a severe test in its first five years, a period of rapid change in Harvard Square. The first major project under the new rules was University Place/University Green on the Baird Atomic site. The Holiday Inn having been rejected, in the mid-1970s a developer planned to build an office complex and two twenty-one-story apartment buildings. Harvard University was persuaded to develop the property, and early in 1980 bought the site as an investment for $4 million.

University Place was the first commercial development project in Harvard Square to include historic preservation as an objective. The plans were close to approval when the Cambridge Historical Commission opposed the demolition of two houses on the site. In the end, the university's developer not only restored the houses but built a complementary Greek Revival building (a replica of 8 Ellery Street) in the landscaped forecourt of the condominium structure, University Green. In addition, Harvard purchased and restored two houses and built three compatible town houses to create a buffer zone on adjoining Gerry Street. In 1984, this area was secured against further adverse development by a neighborhood conservation district administered by the staff of the Historical Commission and the Half Crown Neighborhood Conservation District Commission.

University Place was considered a success. The overlay district accommodated a huge project in a process that took only two years to reach final agreement, compared to six years for Charles Square; both began construction in the spring of 1982. The productive involvement of the university with the community brought about a better design that created a permanent buffer against commercial expansion into a residential neighborhood.

4. Incremental Renewal in Brattle Square

In contrast to the massive undertakings in the southwest sector, a number of loosely coordinated, privately financed projects transformed the block bounded by Brattle, Story, and Mount Auburn streets in two stages over a period of 25 years.

Until the mid-1960s, the block contained a wide range of structures, from the William Brattle House (1727) to the U.S. Post Office (1953). Parts of the former University Press lot had lain vacant or underutilized since 1896, but two former private dormitories, Waverly and Belmont halls, faced Mount Auburn Street. The old post office on Brattle Street was converted to a store in 1954, but the west end of the block, anchored by the Brattle Inn, was still residential. Many homes had become rooming houses, but the character of Story Street was similar to that of Hilliard, Revere, and Gerry streets today. Mifflin Place, in the center of the block, was a cul-de-sac of three-deckers squeezed on narrow lots.

Between 1966 and 1971, six four- to six-story concrete and glass office buildings were constructed on Story Street and Mifflin Place, primarily to house architectural offices. The structures were unified by the Brattle Arcade, a pedestrian area that now links Brattle Street with Mifflin Place and Mount Auburn Street. The development of the arcade was not foreseen at the beginning, but gradually evolved from discussions among the various developers and their architects. The arcade gave human scale to a mostly unexceptional collection of concrete office buildings, and the concept was institutionalized in subsequent zoning guidelines.

Between 1987 and 1991, six projects almost completed the redevelopment of the block. Cambridge developer Louis DiGiovanni constructed a five-story office building that displaced Belmont Hall but completed the arcade through to Mount Auburn Street. Cambridge College then restored a three-decker at 11-15 Mifflin Place, reorienting its entrance to the arcade. In the late 1980s, with the urging of the Harvard Square Advisory Committee, the owners of the Brattle Theatre and the old post office site devised a complex plan to redevelop both parcels that included sharing an underground parking garage and restoring the theater. The development of this site, which involved the demolition of two buildings as well as air rights construction over the bus ramp, was delayed by litigation but finally began in 1990. While the loss of many individual structures is to be regretted, the incremental renewal of this block has resulted in a more diverse and humane architecture than would have occurred under a centrally directed redevelopment project such as that envisioned by the CRA in 1968.

5. Boom and Recession

After 1985, development pressure intensified and community response became more assertive. In 1972, Harvard had agreed to purchase real estate only within a "red line" to protect residential neighborhoods from university expansion. As a result, the university refocused its acquisition program on the commercial district of Harvard Square, and for the first time since the mid-19th century became a major player in development decisions there. Underutilized sites long owned by the university were developed, such as 8-10 Mount Auburn Street and the site of Beck Hall in Quincy Square, and new sites were acquired, such as the St. Paul's Church parking lot on DeWolfe Street. In the late 1980s Harvard began to purchase commercial office buildings such as 51 Brattle Street for its own use and proposed to develop others, such as 1 Eliot Square, that would eventually revert to the university.

It was apparent within a few years after its enactment in 1979 that the Overlay District needed refinement. Some of the design features that earned height bonuses for a project were no longer considered appropriate. The design review process seemed inadequate, and historic preservation concerns were not given consideration in the process.

The effort to revise the district coincided with a preservation planning initiative by the Cambridge Historical Commission. In 1978, the Commission began a citywide survey to identify properties eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. An initial attempt to nominate buildings belonging to Harvard foundered, but the university eventually agreed to review the significance of buildings within about a mile of Harvard Square. In the course of this review, which began in 1984, the Commission proposed that the entire business district, approximately coinciding with the Harvard Square Overlay District, be nominated to the National Register. Harvard's objections to the nomination of its properties were largely overcome by 1986, and in 1988 the Harvard Square Historic District, as well as several hundred buildings elsewhere in Old Cambridge, were listed on the National Register. However, this listing only protected properties against publicly-funded activities.

Harvard supported the move to amend the overlay district by funding a new urban design study by Professors Francois Vigier and Christopher Chadbourne that was as influential as the Monacelli study of 1976. The amended district, enacted in 1986, established an advisory committee to review new projects following guidelines that encouraged diversity in the material and scale of new buildings and respect for the immediate urban context. The height limit was reduced from 110 to 80 feet. It also adopted bonuses for preserving significant buildings, incorporated the proposed National Register district into the amended ordinance, and reduced the allowable density on the Gold Coast to protect the low-rise final clubs.

The first projects submitted for review by the Harvard Square Advisory Committee, One Brattle Square, the Eliot Square Office Building, and the Inn at Harvard in Quincy Square, were fiercely criticized for their height and bulk; all were challenged by the Harvard Square Defense Fund. The university reduced the height of the Inn rather than contest the issue. The designers of One Brattle Square sought to allay community concerns by varying the materials and massing of their structure, but the bulk of the building remained inescapable no matter how it was arranged. Litigation delayed the project for several years, so that by the time it was completed in 1991, the original owners had sold out and their successors had gone bankrupt; nonetheless, the Advisory Committee secured important concessions by ensuring that the design of One Brattle Square was coordinated with that of the adjoining 38 Brattle Street. Adverse economic conditions stranded the Eliot Square building, a joint venture of Harvard University and the developer of Charles Square, which was also opposed by the Defense Fund.

Also delayed by legal challenges and a deteriorating economy was a project that was originally intended to replace five frame structures between Winthrop and John F. Kennedy streets. A compromise designed by the Historical Commission ensured that the ca. 1800 Dame School at 106 Winthrop Street and the 1833 house at 8 Eliot Street would be preserved, and the 18th-century wall behind the buildings would be restored and opened to public view. Coupled with the preservation restrictions already in place on Winthrop Square and 92 and 96 Winthrop Street, the project would have protected a significant part of the early village.

The recession that began in 1989 was felt later in Harvard Square than elsewhere. Most construction in the 1970s and 1980s had taken place on the periphery of the commercial district: on the Brattle block, in the southwest sector, and in Quincy Square. In the core blocks of the 19th-century village, change had been incremental and included restoration as well as new construction. The recession halted development temporarily, but it was clear that when prosperity returned underutilized sites in the old village center would again be at risk.

6. Boom Times Again in Harvard Square

The recovering economy brought the expected pressure on the core blocks of the old village. In 1995, two important projects became the focus of the preservation vs. development debate.

In 1993, the long-time owners of the Read Block - a group of four buildings dating from 1780 to 1820 at the corner of J.F. Kennedy Street and Massachusetts Avenue - placed the building on the market. The Cambridge Savings Bank acquired the property in 1994, and announced plans to clear the site and construct a four-story mixed-use building. Throughout 1995, the Bank and its architects engaged in discussions with community groups about the proposal. Their initial plan called for removing all the structures on the site and constructing a full build-out of the allowable floor area of approximately 49,400 square feet. The proposed building would be three stories tall, with a penthouse set back from the facade and faced with light-colored masonry and brick. A through-block covered arcade would link Massachusetts Avenue with John F. Kennedy Street.

In February 1996, the Historical Commission evaluated the significance of the Read Block and voted to begin a landmark designation study as prescribed by Chapter 2.78 of the City Code. Under amendments adopted in 1995, this action initiated a one-year study period during which the building would be protected as if it were already designated as a landmark.

Eventually, the Bank's proposal evolved from complete redevelopment of the site to a project that would retain both the Russell Store and the Read House. More complete preservation alternatives that were developed at the Commission's request were found financially infeasible by the Bank. The goals for the landmark designation effort evolved as the Commission learned more about the site and its development possibilities. These goals came to include the following:

1. Preserve the historic fabric of the Read Block and its constituent structures. The Read Block contained significant parts of the three oldest commercial buildings in the city, as well as a remnant of an 18th century residence. The fabric of the buildings comprising the Read Block, although compromised by later alterations, was not duplicated elsewhere in Cambridge. The 1896 facade itself represented an ingenious solution to the problem of unifying four (originally six) diverse structures and adapting them for modern commercial purposes.

2. Preserve the diverse architectural character of Harvard Square. The frame buildings on the south side of Harvard Square represented the last group of early commercial structures in the village. The Read Block facade, although only a century old, was considered highly significant, and its multiple entrances and small scale imparted an important degree of complexity to the urban environment of Harvard Square.

3. Preserve the remaining wood-frame buildings in Harvard Square. Frame buildings give Harvard Square much of its diverse character, both architecturally and in terms of use. For the most part originally residential, they offer flexible, inexpensive space for small retailers, services, and professional offices. However, they are vulnerable to redevelopment because they typically cannot attract premium rents and have a low value relative to the land they occupy. Many frame buildings have been removed since the mid-20th century; between 1966 and 1989, eleven such structures disappeared from the Mount Auburn Street-Brattle-Story block alone.

Deliberations on the proposed landmark designation began in May, 1996, and continued through six monthly meetings between August and December. The Bank presented and then repeatedly refined a revised scheme that preserved only the Russell Store and the Read house at the opposite ends of the property. This became known as the "bookends" scheme because it preserved the historic buildings at each end of the site.

In October 1996, the Bank agreed to extend the study period. The January 1997 hearing was attended by 130 people, many of whom supported The Tasty, a lunch counter that came to symbolize the traditional character of the Square. The Commission concluded that the Bank had not convincingly explored the preservation options for the Read Block, and again continued the hearing. The Bank then instructed a consulting architect to design a full build-out of a mixed-use project, on the assumption that the existing buildings would be landmarked. At this point, the Historical Commission voted unanimously to direct the staff to prepare a landmark designation report with a recommendation to the City Council to designate the buildings for consideration at a public hearing on June 5, 1997. Finally, the Bank announced that a third architect had devised a plan to restore the facades, preserve the first 18 feet of the historic structures, and insert a new structure behind them. This plan was approved and incorporated into a landmark designation that was immediately adopted by the City Council. The restoration of the Read Block was finally completed in 1999.

A second project involved an exploration of some similar issues. In November, 1995, Intercontinental Developers, Inc., expressed intent to complete the redevelopment of the block bounded by Winthrop Park, Mount Auburn, Eliot, and Winthrop Streets that a predecessor company had begun with the construction of the Wainwright Bank building in 1983. This site in the core of the old village contained four buildings that dated from 1869 to 1929, which became known as the Winthrop Square Landmark Group. In February 1996, the Historical Commission voted to undertake a landmark designation study, as allowed under the City Code, and thereby initiated an intensive series of consultations with the developers.

The developer’s first scheme called for a six-story extension of the Wainwright Building to cover the entire site and allow a full build-out of the allowable floor area of 53,000 square feet. However, the proponents soon recognized the difficulty of gaining permission to raze the Pi Eta Club (Grendel's Den) at 89 Winthrop Street. Subsequent discussions explored the significance of the other existing structures and the feasibility of replacing some or all of them with a new building. The Commission staff agreed that the significance of the buildings varied, and that some might be sacrificed if a consensus indicated that the new structure met the city's goals for this area.

In the course of their discussions, the proponents and the city staff recognized that the development site resembled a checkerboard with one piece - the Pi Eta Club - fixed in place. Another given was the ramp to the underground garage at the Wainwright Building, which could serve a parking level under the new structure as well. There was general agreement that the Pi Eta Theatre at 93 Winthrop and the inappropriately-altered Holy Cross Armenian Church at 100 Mount Auburn Street were less significant than the Pi Eta Club and the Chapman house at 102 Mount Auburn.

The proponent's final scheme placed the bulk of the new building against the back wall of the Wainwright Building, running from Mount Auburn Street to Winthrop Street at a height of about 70 feet. The Pi Eta Theatre, the Chapman heirs' house, and the Cantabrigia Club would be removed, and the latter would be replaced by a low structure with a height and bulk similar to that of the Pi Eta Club next door. While this proposal preserved the setting of Winthrop Park, it did not protect the Chapman House, which was considered to be a significant wood frame structure. It was suggested that the Chapman heirs' house could be moved to face the park rather than to Winthrop Street as originally proposed. In this location, it would enhance the setting of Winthrop Square and retain a significant wood frame building on its original lot. It could also remain in retail use, maintaining the long Harvard Square tradition of residential conversions to new purposes. This solution was adopted by the developers, and approval for the project followed later in 1996. In this case, the developers chose to grant the Historical Commission a preservation restriction, so a landmark designation was not necessary.

The Historical Commission took a leading role in both the Read Block and the Winthrop Square projects because its regulatory review of demolition permits and its initiation of landmark designation studies gave it precedence over other agencies. The Harvard Square Advisory Committee, in these cases, assumed more of a consultative role, in contrast to its leading part in the negotiations over One Brattle Square. In the latter case, the Commission had signed off on the demolition permits at a relatively early date and had little further to do with the project.

While only one new project - an office building at Zero Arrow Street - has been discussed in Harvard Square since 1994, the cyclical history of the area makes it certain that development schemes will continue to appear. The presence of the Old Cambridge Historic District on the northwest of the Harvard Square business district, the Half Crown Neighborhood Conservation District on the west, and Harvard University on the north and south, coupled with the scarcity of available large parcels or assemblages on the periphery of Harvard Square proper, now serves to focus development on the core of the old village. This area escaped most redevelopment projects because of its small parcels and diversity of ownership, but the passage of time and the growing demand for new space will end the relative exemption from development pressure that it has enjoyed until recently.   (End)

<<Previous

Return to CHC Homepage Return to City's Homepage

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, Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge: Old Cambridge, to be published by The MIT Press.