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How MIT ended up on Memorial Drive



On March 23, 1912, the very day the subway connecting Boston and Cambridge opened to the general public, one other occasion occurred that will change Kendall Square much more profoundly than the brand new, state-of-the-art transit system. As destiny would have it, that was the day when a big swath of property adjoining to the sq. was formally conveyed to MIT, paving the way in which for the college’s transfer throughout the river from the Back Bay. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the moment types such an important a part of Kendall Square—intertwined with the very definition of what the sq. is—that it might appear shocking to study that the Institute’s arrival was in no way sure. In reality, if an enterprising businessman named Charles Davenport had realized his imaginative and prescient for the marshland on the banks of the Charles River, it’s impossible that the college would have come to Cambridge in any respect. 

Davenport had began out as a woodworker’s apprentice, received into the coach-­making enterprise, and in the end bought his pioneering railcar-making operation at 700 Main Street in 1855. But he remained extraordinarily fascinated by what was occurring round what was then referred to as Dock Square, whilst he traveled all through the United States, took a number of journeys to Europe, and made not less than one sojourn to Cuba. During a go to to Havana within the 1850s, Davenport received the inspiration for growing the shoreline on either side of the Charles River into an unlimited park. In Cuba’s capital, the previous wheelwright “noticed the small embankment on the bay there, the place the folks sat beneath the palms, having fun with the breezes.” That made him consider the Charles River and the salt marshes and mudflats that lined it on either side. He envisioned “a boulevard alongside every river financial institution … 200 toes in width,” and a stately residential district occupying a lot of the realm the place MIT now stands, to reflect that of Boston’s Back Bay.

Davenport already owned a number of the marshland on the Cambridge facet of the river. Upon returning to Boston, he started shopping for up extra. He finally gathered three-fourths of the shoreline flats between the Cottage Farm and West Boston bridges (now the Boston University and Longfellow bridges, respectively), a roughly 2.5-mile stretch on the Cambridge facet of the river. It was, primarily, the yard of each his personal former carriage works and Edward Kendall’s boiler-making operation.

A late nineteenth century commercial for the Charles Davenport Car Manufactory
HISTORY CAMBRIDGE

The part of the Charles River round what’s now Kendall Square had lengthy been unappealing. In the 1800s, the Charles was dammed upriver for mills, and the bordering marshlands had been stuffed for business and residential developments. At low tide, the decrease Charles, together with the realm close to Kendall Square, grew to become a settling floor for sewage. By the mid-1800s, a number of plans had been superior to fill the mudflats and marshes and make the Charles right into a world-class public area and park system, however there had been little traction by the point Davenport received energetic—and he meant to vary that. 

Davenport fashioned the Charles River Embankment Company with some associates in 1880 to pursue his dream of making Havana-like esplanades on either side of the river. In Cambridge, his plans included a seawall or embankment that will shield the broad public esplanade and the road of grand properties to be constructed simply inland. All this was imagined for simply upriver from Dock Square, virtually precisely the place MIT now sits. 

Davenport envisioned “a boulevard alongside every river financial institution … 200 toes in width,” and a stately residential district occupying a lot of the realm the place MIT now stands, to reflect that of Boston’s Back Bay.

It virtually occurred—and there would virtually actually have been no MIT in Cambridge if it had. In 1882, the cities of Cambridge and Boston agreed to construct a brand new bridge throughout the widest a part of the river basin (this grew to become the Harvard Bridge, alongside what was later named Massachusetts Avenue). The Embankment Company negotiated a deal. By giving up the land town wanted for an strategy to the bridge and for a 200-foot-wide esplanade, it obtained a postponement of any tax will increase on the remainder of its land throughout building—and permission to develop it. This association, says Cambridge historian Charles Sullivan, gave the corporate “the appropriate to construct a seawall, assemble what’s now Memorial Drive, and fill all of the land the place MIT is now.”

Construction of the seawall started in 1883, and the Harvard Bridge was accomplished in 1892. The Embankment Company employed architect Frederick Viaux to attract up plans for an upscale residential neighborhood behind the esplanade, extending all the way in which again to the railroad observe embankment that Davenport himself had helped construct within the 1850s. Developers must abide by sure restrictions—together with a 20-foot setback from the esplanade, a prohibition in opposition to industrial or business buildings, a requirement to make use of solely brick, iron, or stone as constructing supplies, and a minimal peak of three tales and most peak of eight.

map of a section of the Second Ward in Cambridge

In 1873, Cambridge’s Main Street (proven right here in two sections) ran by the marshlands of the Charles River.
HARVARD MAP COLLECTION, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

It all appeared compelling, however issues began going haywire. More than 80% of the railroad tracks crossing Cambridge had been laid on a excessive embankment to guard the rails from the marshland under. The embankment had few culverts, severely slicing water circulate from one facet of the embankment to the opposite. That helped dry out the marshes north of the embankment and made them extra appropriate for growth. But the river facet of the rail line was nonetheless moist—and the marshlands reeked. By the late Eighties, an getting old Davenport had primarily retired from enterprise life. The Embankment Company he had helped kind continued however discovered it onerous to promote residential heaps on that facet, because the presence of the tracks discouraged many consumers.

Then got here the devastating panic of 1893. The ensuing melancholy lasted till 1897 and compelled the Embankment Company out of business. By then, a thousand toes of seawall had been constructed, and primarily all the marshes and tide flats had been stuffed—creating strong land from Harvard Square all the way in which to East Cambridge. But little growth occurred for a number of years after the melancholy. By 1902, solely the Riverbank Court Hotel at 305 Memorial Drive (now the MIT dorm Fariborz Maseeh Hall), the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse, town armory (now MIT’s du Pont Athletic Center), and a smattering of different buildings had been accomplished. The heaps Davenport’s group had envisioned for residential growth sat unsold for the subsequent 20 years, regardless of the expansive river and metropolis views so interesting and wanted at the moment.

Charles Davenport
Railcar pioneer Charles Davenport based the Charles River Embankment Company in 1880 and deliberate to develop the newly stuffed land flanking the Cambridge facet of the river.
PUBLIC DOMAIN

The failure of Davenport’s plan opened the door for the arrival of MIT. But it took an unlikely sequence of occasions to convey the already well-known faculty to Cambridge in 1916. A number of years earlier, actually, the percentages had been nice that MIT itself wouldn’t lengthy exist as an impartial entity: the plan had been for it to merge with Harvard as the inspiration of a brand new science and engineering campus throughout the Charles River in Brighton, about the place Harvard Business School is at the moment. Powerful figures, together with metal baron Andrew Carnegie, had stakes in making the union a actuality. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Tech­nology had been chartered as a land-grant faculty in 1861. By the late 1800s, what many knew as Boston Tech had proved its price as a top-flight engineering and utilized science faculty, arguably the nation’s greatest. Its recognition strained the bounds of its tight quarters in Boston’s Back Bay. By the early 1900s, MIT was scouting for a brand new residence. 

map and illustration of "New Boston and Charles River Bay"
Davenport envisioned parks alongside either side of a 2.5-mile stretch of the river, as seen on this c. 1886 lithograph of a c. 1875 watercolor.
NORMAN B. LEVENTHAL MAP & EDUCATION CENTER

Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, wished that residence to be Harvard. One of MIT’s inaugural chemistry professors, Eliot had change into Harvard’s president in 1869. The Lawrence Scientific School, residence to Harvard’s engineering and utilized science program, was overshadowed by the school’s liberal arts status and struggled to draw sufficient college students to justify its existence. So Eliot proposed to 4 successive presidents of Boston Tech that it and Harvard be a part of forces. The fourth, Henry Pritchett, took the bait within the Eighteen Nineties. 

In January 1904, the Boston Daily Advertiser introduced that Boston Tech and Harvard had agreed to merge. The shock announcement set off a firestorm at MIT. While the settlement specified that the Institute would retain its identify, constitution, group, and mission, the truth was that MIT would lose its cherished independence and change into Harvard’s engineering faculty. That didn’t sit nicely with school, workers, or many alums. As one account summed up the issues: “Should the Institute now, after almost forty years’ battle, surrender its hard-won independence, sacrifice its elementary ideas, and yield a management received the onerous technique to come beneath the partial or full domination of Harvard within the hope of financial benefit?” 

The reply from MIT school—by a vote of 56 to 7—was an amazing no. A survey despatched to alumni confirmed 2,035 opposed and solely 834 in favor. Nevertheless, in June 1905, the Technology Corporation gave the merger the inexperienced gentle by a vote of 23 to fifteen. 

The union thus appeared ordained. In anticipation of the choice, a bunch of rich Harvard donors, together with Andrew Carnegie and stockbroker Henry Higginson, had already pooled their sources and bought the tract of riverfront property east of Soldiers Field in Brighton.

But there was one massive catch. Under the phrases of the settlement, MIT could be on the hook to “erect, furnish, and equip buildings having the capability of not less than its current buildings.” The faculty meant to promote all or a part of its present land within the Back Bay to meet this obligation. But in September 1905, only some months after the Technology Corporation authorised the plan, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court dominated that since MIT had bought its land with federal land-grant funding, it didn’t have the appropriate to promote it. The union with Harvard fell by. Pritchett, who resigned as MIT president in 1907, is probably greatest recognized for the deal’s failure even at the moment.

MIT resumed its seek for a brand new campus. The college had already thought of the Cambridge esplanade web site that Charles Davenport had tried to develop and rejected it. But it was put again on the desk beneath the brand new president who arrived in 1909—the Scottish-born, New Zealand–raised mathematician and lawyer Richard Maclaurin. Maclaurin “noticed clearly that his first and most pressing process could be the relocation of MIT and the elevating of funds to construct the ‘New Technology,’” the identify given to the envisioned new campus. (The present one was recognized merely as Technology.) 

Maclaurin’s eyes had been on the Cambridge esplanade even earlier than he formally began. On a go to to Boston in April 1909, just a few months earlier than he took workplace, the Scotsman dined on the Beacon Street residence of Charles Stone, a founding father of the then 20-year-old engineering agency Stone & Webster (each Stone and cofounder Edwin Webster had been MIT grads). They regarded out the home windows over the Charles to the esplanade property. The incoming president was enamored. According to 1 MIT historical past, “This struck Maclaurin as excellent for dimension, accessibility, and dignity of setting. An important and noble edifice may right here be erected that will be a worthy residence for the Institute.” Stone informed Maclaurin it had already been dominated out, explaining that Cambridge would seemingly oppose one other tax-exempt college inside its borders, that Harvard would in all probability object, and that a number of would-be donors—he should have been considering of Higginson, Carnegie, and their companions—had been unlikely to present generously to help a transfer to that web site after the failed merger.

view of the Harvard Bridge toward Cambridge

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
image of MIT on Boylston Street in 1903

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
MIT president, Richard Maclaurin
map of MIT campus in 1905
The thought of shifting “Technology” from its Boylston Street location (above, center) to the Cambridge esplanade (high) was put again on the desk by MIT’s new president, Richard Maclaurin (left), in 1910.

Maclaurin was not dissuaded. A proper new hunt for an growth web site launched with 4 major standards: accessibility for college students, school, and the general public; affordability; area, with the potential for setting up buildings “worthy of the institute’s significance”; and a location “impartial of the affect of different establishments.” The choice committee’s report, submitted to Maclaurin in October 1910, famous that the committee had thought of not less than 24 websites, even evaluating the potential for constructing an island for the campus in the course of the Charles, the place the Harvard Bridge crossed it (this was quickly deemed impractical). The most promising was an extended stretch in Boston’s Fenway/Longwood space close to the present Harvard Medical School campus and Simmons College. The esplanade web site, referred to as the Riverbank within the examine, was a distant second, with a laundry listing of potential issues. The report identified that the land was comparatively pricey and had a variety of house owners—35, because it turned out—with whom to barter. The “encroaching manufacturing district” was deemed worrisome, as was the nearness to Harvard and that college’s potential objection to the transfer. Finally got here the issues about shedding the college’s tax-exempt standing. 

In December, when Maclaurin examined the waters for a donation for any new web site from Andrew Carnegie, “as Scotsman to Scotsman,” Carnegie turned him down flat: “Ye’re no blate. Just consider it, I hav given $3,800,000 in the direction of extending the Pittsburg faculty … and also you ask me to assist Boston, which has obtained $400,000 from me for the Franklin Institute! I benefit from the joke! Besides, I don’t put the Pittsburg faculty behind even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is an in depth race and we’ll see who’s winner by and by.” Carnegie even pushed once more for the merger with Harvard in a blunt P.S.: “If I mistake not, I’m an element proprietor of that floor that my pal Lee Higginson and a few of us bought to unite the 2 establishments, which ought to be performed.”

Maclaurin did get a pledge of $500,000 from T. Coleman du Pont, an MIT graduate and future US senator who was then president of his household’s namesake chemical enterprise. But it was for a unique web site, a golf course in Allston. So maybe in an effort to stir the pot, Maclaurin casually remarked to a newspaper reporter that “Technology might need to tug up stakes and transfer to someplace the place the price of residing is inside its means.”

Several Massachusetts cities shortly expressed their curiosity. A bunch of MIT alumni from Springfield provided land there, for instance. Cities in different states weighed in as nicely. The Chicago Evening Post boasted: “We may help a ‘Boston Tech’ with our free change, and we wouldn’t, like some cities we all know of, have to go looking all of the hinterland roundabout to seek out the cash.”

 The competitors stirred officers in Cambridge to take motion. “Restive at being rated as the one metropolis within the state which Technology would by no means, by no means take into account,” as Maclaurin’s biographer wrote, it dropped any objection to MIT’s retaining its tax-­exempt standing. The Cambridge City Council handed a proper decision supporting the relocation, which was forwarded to Maclaurin by the mayor together with his private endorsement. In March 1911, Harvard notified Maclaurin it was now additionally okay with having each establishments in Cambridge. 

All this helped vault the Riverbank property to the highest of the listing—and loosen purse strings. Du Pont amended his pledge to increase it to the Cambridge property, and the state legislature authorised a invoice authorizing a grant of $100,000 a 12 months to MIT for 10 years if the college raised an identical quantity itself. By the autumn of 1911, negotiations had been accomplished with all 35 house owners of the Riverbank space to purchase 46 acres of land bounded by Massachusetts Avenue on the west and Ames Street on the east, Vassar Street inland or north, and the esplanade. The envisioned campus didn’t prolong east previous Ames Street towards Main Street, the place the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Sloan School of Management, amongst different buildings, stand at the moment. Similarly, the land southwest of Massachusetts Avenue—now residence to Kresge Auditorium, many scholar dorms (together with the transformed Riverbank Court Hotel), and the athletic middle—was not a part of the preliminary buy. The price ticket for the 46 acres was $775,000. 

Then, in early 1912, Maclaurin met with Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman (who was neither an MIT alum nor a Massachusetts resident) on the Hotel Belmont in New York. They reportedly had a heat and earnest dialog, wherein the MIT president detailed the plans for New Technology. As Maclaurin’s spouse, Alice, later associated, “The floor was damaged so fully in Mr. Eastman’s thoughts that my husband was astonished. When Mr. Eastman was about to depart, he out of the blue requested: ‘What will it price to place up the brand new buildings?’ My husband answered that it will price about two and a half million {dollars}. Mr. Eastman stated, ‘I’ll ship you a draft.’” Eastman’s one stipulation was that he stay nameless—and so he was referred to solely as Mr. Smith till his id was revealed in 1920.

Although conveyance of the property to MIT occurred on March 23, 1912, the identical day the subway line formally debuted, it will take one other 4 years for the primary wave of building and different components to come back collectively to allow MIT’s transfer. But a brand new period was seen on the horizon.


Where Futures Converge

Robert Buderi was editor at massive after which editor in chief of Technology Review between 2000 and 2004. Excerpted from Where Futures Converge: Kendall Square and the Making of a Global Innovation Hub. Reprinted with permission from The MIT Press. Copyright 2022.

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