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 befell that may change Kendall Sq. 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 varsity’s transfer throughout the river from the Again Bay. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Know-how at the moment varieties such a vital a part of Kendall Sq.—intertwined with the very definition of what the sq. is—that it could appear shocking to study that the Institute’s arrival was certainly not sure. In actual fact, 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 not possible that the college would have come to Cambridge in any respect. 

Davenport had began out as a woodworker’s apprentice, bought into the coach-­making enterprise, and in the end bought his pioneering railcar-making operation at 700 Principal Avenue in 1855. However he remained extraordinarily fascinated with what was occurring round what was then known as Dock Sq., whilst he traveled all through the US, took a number of journeys to Europe, and made not less than one sojourn to Cuba. Throughout a go to to Havana within the 1850s, Davenport bought the inspiration for growing the shoreline on each 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 individuals sat underneath the palms, having fun with the breezes.” That made him consider the Charles River and the salt marshes and mudflats that lined it on each side. He envisioned “a boulevard alongside every river financial institution … 200 ft in width,” and a stately residential district occupying a lot of the world the place MIT now stands, to reflect that of Boston’s Again Bay.

Davenport already owned among the marshland on the Cambridge facet of the river. Upon returning to Boston, he started shopping for up extra. He finally amassed three-fourths of the shoreline flats between the Cottage Farm and West Boston bridges (now the Boston College 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.

advertisement for Davenport
A late 19th century commercial for the Charles Davenport Automotive Manufactory
HISTORY CAMBRIDGE

The part of the Charles River round what’s now Kendall Sq. had lengthy been unappealing. Within the 1800s, the Charles was dammed upriver for mills, and the bordering marshlands had been crammed for industrial and residential developments. At low tide, the decrease Charles, together with the world close to Kendall Sq., 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 bought energetic—and he meant to vary that. 

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

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

It nearly occurred—and there would nearly definitely 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 Firm negotiated a deal. By giving up the land the town wanted for an strategy to the bridge and for a 200-foot-wide esplanade, it acquired 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 precise to construct a seawall, assemble what’s now Memorial Drive, and fill all of the land the place MIT is now.”

Development of the seawall started in 1883, and the Harvard Bridge was accomplished in 1892. The Embankment Firm 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 monitor embankment that Davenport himself had helped construct within the 1850s. Builders must abide by sure restrictions—together with a 20-foot setback from the esplanade, a prohibition towards industrial or industrial constructions, 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 Principal Avenue (proven right here in two sections) ran via the marshlands of the Charles River.
HARVARD MAP COLLECTION, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

All of it appeared compelling, however issues began going haywire. Greater 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 reducing water stream 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 improvement. However the river facet of the rail line was nonetheless moist—and the marshlands reeked. By the late 1880s, an growing older Davenport had primarily retired from enterprise life. The Embankment Firm he had helped kind continued however discovered it exhausting 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 following despair lasted till 1897 and compelled the Embankment Firm out of business. By then, a thousand ft of seawall had been constructed, and primarily the entire marshes and tide flats had been crammed—creating stable land from Harvard Sq. all the way in which to East Cambridge. However little improvement befell for a number of years after the despair. By 1902, solely the Riverbank Courtroom Lodge at 305 Memorial Drive (now the MIT dorm Fariborz Maseeh Corridor), the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse, the town armory (now MIT’s du Pont Athletic Middle), and a smattering of different buildings had been accomplished. The heaps Davenport’s group had envisioned for residential improvement sat unsold for the following 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 Firm in 1880 and deliberate to develop the newly crammed land flanking the Cambridge facet of the river.
PUBLIC DOMAIN

The failure of Davenport’s plan opened the door for the arrival of MIT. However it took an unlikely collection of occasions to deliver the already well-known college to Cambridge in 1916. A number of years earlier, actually, the chances 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 muse of a brand new science and engineering campus throughout the Charles River in Brighton, about the place Harvard Enterprise College is at the moment. Highly effective 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 college in 1861. By the late 1800s, what many knew as Boston Tech had proved its value as a top-flight engineering and utilized science college, arguably the nation’s greatest. Its reputation strained the boundaries of its tight quarters in Boston’s Again Bay. By the early 1900s, MIT was scouting for a brand new dwelling. 

map and illustration of "New Boston and Charles River Bay"
Davenport envisioned parks alongside each 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, needed that dwelling to be Harvard. One among MIT’s inaugural chemistry professors, Eliot had turn out to be Harvard’s president in 1869. The Lawrence Scientific College, dwelling 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 1890s. 

In January 1904, the Boston Each day Advertiser introduced that Boston Tech and Harvard had agreed to merge. The shock announcement set off a firestorm at MIT. Whereas the settlement specified that the Institute would retain its identify, constitution, group, and mission, the fact was that MIT would lose its cherished independence and turn out to be Harvard’s engineering college. That didn’t sit nicely with college, workers, or many alums. As one account summed up the considerations: “Ought to the Institute now, after practically forty years’ battle, hand over its hard-won independence, sacrifice its basic ideas, and yield a management gained the exhausting strategy to come underneath the partial or full domination of Harvard within the hope of financial benefit?” 

The reply from MIT college—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. Nonetheless, in June 1905, the Know-how Company gave the merger the inexperienced mild by a vote of 23 to 15. 

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 Troopers Area in Brighton.

However there was one massive catch. Underneath 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 college meant to promote all or a part of its current land within the Again Bay to meet this obligation. However in September 1905, just a few months after the Know-how Company permitted the plan, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Courtroom dominated that since MIT had bought its land with federal land-grant funding, it didn’t have the precise to promote it. The union with Harvard fell via. Pritchett, who resigned as MIT president in 1907, is maybe greatest identified for the deal’s failure even at the moment.

MIT resumed its seek for a brand new campus. The college had already thought-about the Cambridge esplanade web site that Charles Davenport had tried to develop and rejected it. However it was put again on the desk underneath 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 activity could be the relocation of MIT and the elevating of funds to construct the ‘New Know-how,’” the identify given to the envisioned new campus. (The present one was identified merely as Know-how.) 

Maclaurin’s eyes had been on the Cambridge esplanade even earlier than he formally began. On a go to to Boston in April 1909, a couple of months earlier than he took workplace, the Scotsman dined on the Beacon Avenue dwelling 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 seemed out the home windows over the Charles to the esplanade property. The incoming president was enamored. In response to one MIT historical past, “This struck Maclaurin as very best for dimension, accessibility, and dignity of setting. An awesome and noble edifice might right here be erected that may be a worthy dwelling for the Institute.” Stone advised Maclaurin it had already been dominated out, explaining that Cambridge would probably 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 pondering 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 concept of shifting “Know-how” from its Boylston Avenue location (above, center) to the Cambridge esplanade (prime) 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 foremost standards: accessibility for college kids, college, 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-about not less than 24 websites, even evaluating the opportunity of constructing an island for the campus in the midst of the Charles, the place the Harvard Bridge crossed it (this was quickly deemed impractical). Probably the most promising was a protracted stretch in Boston’s Fenway/Longwood space close to the present Harvard Medical College campus and Simmons School. The esplanade web site, known as the Riverbank within the research, was a distant second, with a laundry listing of potential issues. The report identified that the land was comparatively expensive and had quite a lot of homeowners—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. Lastly got here the considerations about dropping the varsity’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. Simply consider it, I hav given $3,800,000 in the direction of extending the Pittsburg college … and also you ask me to assist Boston, which has acquired $400,000 from me for the Franklin Institute! I benefit from the joke! Moreover, I don’t put the Pittsburg college behind even the Massachusetts Institute of Know-how. It’s a shut 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 a component proprietor of that floor that my good friend Lee Higginson and a few of us bought to unite the 2 establishments, which must be completed.”

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. However it was for a distinct web site, a golf course in Allston. So maybe in an effort to stir the pot, Maclaurin casually remarked to a newspaper reporter that “Know-how may need to drag up stakes and transfer to someplace the place the price of dwelling is inside its means.”

A number of Massachusetts cities rapidly expressed their curiosity. A bunch of MIT alumni from Springfield supplied land there, for instance. Cities in different states weighed in as nicely. The Chicago Night Publish boasted: “We might help a ‘Boston Tech’ with our unfastened 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 Know-how 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 Metropolis Council handed a proper decision supporting the relocation, which was forwarded to Maclaurin by the mayor along 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 permitted a invoice authorizing a grant of $100,000 a yr to MIT for 10 years if the varsity raised an identical quantity itself. By the autumn of 1911, negotiations had been accomplished with all 35 homeowners of the Riverbank space to purchase 46 acres of land bounded by Massachusetts Avenue on the west and Ames Avenue on the east, Vassar Avenue inland or north, and the esplanade. The envisioned campus didn’t prolong east previous Ames Avenue towards Principal Avenue, the place the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Sloan College of Administration, amongst different buildings, stand at the moment. Equally, the land southwest of Massachusetts Avenue—now dwelling to Kresge Auditorium, many scholar dorms (together with the transformed Riverbank Courtroom Lodge), and the athletic heart—was not a part of the preliminary buy. The worth tag 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 Lodge Belmont in New York. They reportedly had a heat and earnest dialog, by which the MIT president detailed the plans for New Know-how. As Maclaurin’s spouse, Alice, later associated, “The bottom was damaged so utterly in Mr. Eastman’s thoughts that my husband was astonished. When Mr. Eastman was about to go away, he all of a sudden requested: ‘What’s going to it value to place up the brand new buildings?’ My husband answered that it could value 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 identification was revealed in 1920.

Though conveyance of the property to MIT befell on March 23, 1912, the identical day the subway line formally debuted, it could take one other 4 years for the primary wave of building and different components to return collectively to allow MIT’s transfer. However a brand new period was seen on the horizon.


The place Futures Converge

Robert Buderi was editor at giant after which editor in chief of Know-how Overview between 2000 and 2004. Excerpted from The place Futures Converge: Kendall Sq. and the Making of a International Innovation Hub. Reprinted with permission from The MIT Press. Copyright 2022.

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