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Old Cambridge

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The origins of Cambridge lie in the area of Harvard Square (HS1). Founded in 1630 as Newtowne, Cambridge (the name was changed in 1638) was intended to serve as the center for the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A defensible location five miles upriver from the exposed positions of Boston and Charlestown, the ability of deepwater ships to navigate the Charles River to this point, and the existence of freshwater streams and nearby agricultural lands all influenced the selection of the site. The compact town laid out in 1631 was one of the earliest grid plans in New England and was fortified by palisades in following years. The need for defense against the Indians or against the British government revoking the colony's charter soon proved groundless. In 1631, the colonial governor relocated to Boston, and the General Court followed in 1634. Harvard College was founded in 1636, giving Cambridge a new purpose and focus.

The core village of the seventeenth century was augmented by both grants of adjacent farmland to individuals and access to common land. The Great Bridge at the end of Boylston Street spanned the Charles River in 1660–1662, connecting Cambridge to Boston by way of Roxbury. The original Newtowne grant, enlarged several times in 1632–1636 and in 1641, ultimately incorporated modern Brighton, Newton, Arlington, Lexington, parts of Bedford and Lincoln, and stretched almost as far as the Merrimack River. Throughout the colonial period, groups of farmers in these distant sections formed new parishes and sought separation from Cambridge, the last in 1807. As early as the mid-seventeenth century, consolidation of farmlands into larger estates began around the central village at what is now Harvard Square. Although the population remained heavily Puritan in background, slowly an elite class of Anglicans began to make Cambridge their home, assembling countryseats primarily on land along Brattle Street. At the time of the Revolution, most of the Tories fled to Nova Scotia and England. Cambridge became a center for military strategy during the war, and the mansions of the Tories were seized to quarter the troops or to shelter the generals (General Washington established his headquarters at 105 Brattle Street).

Following the Revolution, the old village experienced challenges to its prestige and influence. The completion of the West Boston Bridge (see EC2) in 1793 and the Canal or Craigie Bridge in 1809 launched Cambridgeport and East Cambridge, respectively, as new economic centers of the community, and the neighborhood around the original settlement became known as Old Cambridge. After the courthouse moved to East Cambridge and the town hall to Cambridgeport, Old Cambridge benefited from the traffic moving through it en route to central Boston, but the commercial and industrial growth of Cambridge occurred to the east. Following the Civil War, Harvard Square became more focused on the expansion of Harvard College and of other educational institutions, such as Radcliffe, that located here as well. The building out of residential neighborhoods from the Harvard Square core continued, accelerated by horse car service along major routes. Public transit was electrified beginning in 1889, and the subway from Boston arrived at Harvard Square in 1912.

These transportation routes brought different forms and intensities of development. Where the electric trolley ran, as along Massachusetts Avenue, apartment buildings replaced single-family houses to accommodate population growth; side streets extended from the major arteries with coherent neighborhoods of houses. Only Brattle Street resisted this growth; its residents succeeded in preventing the electrification of its horse cars, and parallel trolley lines were built on Mount Auburn Street and Huron Avenue instead. As undeveloped land was made available and former estates were subdivided, Old Cambridge grew in density of habitation, but earlier patterns of circulation and land use persisted. In essence, the story of Old Cambridge since the mid-nineteenth century has been one of instructional expansion, residential intensification, and expansion of the commercial core at Harvard Square. The riverfront became a new area for development of both Harvard College and prime residential districts from the late nineteenth century on. The Harvard Square shopping district expanded into Brattle Square (RA7) as the subway made it an important shopping destination. Gradually Harvard Square became a part of the larger metropolitan network, attracting more visitors and commuters. In the past two decades, the scale and character of commercial buildings have changed to a red brick corporate image, challenging the surviving elements of the earlier residential and commercial buildings. Also the sense of what it means to live and work in Harvard Square has also expanded, incorporating a large section of Cambridge and catering to a younger and more transient community. Therefore, one can speak of a series of subsets of Harvard Square: Harvard Yard, North Yard, Harvard Square South, Radcliffe College and Avon Hill, and Brattle Street.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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