The area between Harvard Yard and the Charles River marks the site of the original “Towne” of Newtowne. Protected by a palisade, here rose the meetinghouses and courthouses of colonial Cambridge surrounded by a regularly ordered and densely inhabited village. As the colonial county and city governments removed to other locations, the area continued as a residential enclave and grew as a commercial center serving the college and the surrounding area. Some evidence of the early residences survive, ranging from modest wooden dwellings to the grand mansion of East Apthorp (see HS4; c. 1760), now sheltered within the Adams House dormitory complex.
Harvard Square was the centerpiece of the district and remains a major metropolitan destination today. The omnibuses, horse cars, electrified trolleys, and, finally, the subway in 1912 connected the Square to the surrounding region. As the speed of transportation increased, the scale of commercial building also intensified.
South of Massachusetts Avenue, investors built luxurious private dormitories from the early 1880s through 1904, prompting the name of Gold Coast for part of this district. Soon private clubs for undergraduates joined the mix, usually in domestically scaled buildings. Closer to the river, Harvard began a more coherent campaign of colonial-inspired brick dormitories in 1913, augmented by a major gift from Edward Harkness in 1928 that facilitated the grand upper-class houses that ennoble the riverfront. Farther west along the Charles, the private sector has also invaded this valuable real estate, building apartment complexes with river views throughout the twentieth century.
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