You are here

Central Square/Cambridgeport/Mid Cambridge

-A A +A

Central Square, surrounded by Cambridgeport to the south and east and Mid Cambridge to the northwest, provides one of the key public and commercial nodes of Cambridge. Here the civic center arose in the mid-nineteenth century, located between the villages of Old Cambridge (HS1, Harvard Square) and East Cambridge. Farmland or marshes in the colonial period, these districts were secondary to Old Cambridge until after the Revolution.

Cambridgeport developed first, after the construction of the West Boston Bridge (see EC2) in 1793, which provided the first direct link between Cambridge and Boston. From Pelham's Island, near what is now Lafayette Square, the bridge continued by causeway and wooden framework to the Boston shore at Cambridge Street. Taverns and other services for travelers were constructed near the bridgehead in the 1790s. Through the efforts of the Cambridgeport Proprietors, a group of investors, the area was declared a port of delivery of the United States in 1805, signaling its commercial potential on the Charles River estuary. The proprietors built canals, drained marshes, filled land, and sold lots in an ambitious scheme for the future. The Embargo Act of 1807 stifled commerce, and the War of 1812 further undermined the sale of lots and economic growth. By war's end in 1815, the potential had evaporated, and Cambridgeport lay derelict until it became an industrial suburb of Boston after the Civil War. The central transportation spine for Cambridge—Main Street from the West Boston Bridge extending into Massachusetts Avenue at Lafayette Square—was established at this time.

In contrast, Mid Cambridge remained an agricultural buffer between Old Cambridge and the commercial activities of the port and of East Cambridge. This land had been used for agriculture and pasturage from the 1630s on. By the mid-seventeenth century, larger landholdings began to be assembled and estates to be developed in this district. One of these, owned by Loyalist Ralph Inman, was seized during the Revolution and used to quarter troops. By the 1830s, development pressure from Harvard Square and from the new bridges to Boston began to open this estate district to middle-class residential subdivision. Dana Hill is the main topographical landmark of the area and began to be divided into building lots in the 1830s and had undergone substantial development by 1854. The Dana Hill section attracted a more varied population. Deed restrictions on use, scale, and cost of future development represented an early form of zoning to insure that Mid Cambridge would become a middle-class suburb.

After its initial period of boom and bust, Cambridgeport settled into a pattern of slower, if erratic, growth. The easy access to Boston encouraged a population of commuters, using the stagecoach service inaugurated as early as 1795; a coach line between Boston and Harvard Square ran through Cambridgeport every half hour by 1819. The Haymarket, now Central Square (CS15), became the focus of a commercial corridor stretching along Massachusetts Avenue. Along the river and at the canals near Kendall Square (EC5), a small-scale industrial economy grew during the first half of the nineteenth century, soap making becoming the dominant force of these skilled trades. The largest single factory before midcentury was the Davenport Car Works, where passenger and freight railroad cars were built.

When the old town house in Harvard Square proved inadequate for the scale of town government, a committee was established in 1830 to establish a new one. After heated debate, Cambridgeport, as the middle of three dominant areas of Cambridge, became the obvious solution. When Cambridge became a city in 1846, Cambridgeport maintained its importance as the civic core for a rapidly expanding urban center.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Cambridgeport evolved from a trading center dependent on the Charles River to an industrial zone of increasing scale. Although the bridges to Boston ceased to charge tolls in 1858, Cambridgeport was becoming more focused on its own development. After nearly two decades of false starts, the Grand Junction Railroad corridor through Cambridgeport by 1866 made the area's open and inexpensive land attractive to larger industries. Beginning near the Broad Canal (EC4), new industrial concerns flourished along the railway line, bringing immigrant workers to adjacent neighborhoods. Because the developable land was plentiful, growth was unregulated; three-deckers joined the housing mix by the 1880s as density of habitation increased.

One major area that remained distinct from the rest of Cambridgeport was the district between the railroad and the river. Here private capital sought a more controlled form of development. Led by retired carmaker Charles Davenport, the Charles River Embankment Company was formed in 1880 and began construction of a seawall along the river and the dredge filling of the marshland behind. The construction of the Harvard Bridge (see EC2) in 1887–1891 as an extension of Massachusetts Avenue across to the Boston shore further added to development fever. Envisioned as a Cambridge variant of the Back Bay development in Boston, the Charles River esplanade remained another failed dream when very few lots sold. In 1916, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) relocated from the Copley Square (BB36) neighborhood of Boston to this undeveloped shore of the Charles and began its domination of the riverfront.

In 1912, the subway from Boston crossed the new Longfellow Bridge (see EC2; 1907), the second replacement for the original West Boston Bridge, reducing by two-thirds the commute to the central city. MIT soon exerted in Cambridgeport as decisive a role as did Harvard in Old Cambridge, expanding its campus along the river and attracting industries to the neighborhood, especially during and after World War II. Nationally prominent corporations located in Cambridgeport, such as Nabisco, NECCO, and Polaroid, were soon joined by electronic and engineering firms eager to be near the research might of MIT.

Today this central core of Cambridge remains highly varied. The denizens of the genteel neighborhoods of Mid Cambridge rub shoulders with the changing industrial workforce of Kendall Square and the student populations from MIT, Harvard, and Boston University across the river.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.

, ,