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 happened that might 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 best way for the college’s transfer throughout the river from the Again Bay. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Expertise in the present day types such an important a part of Kendall Sq.—intertwined with the very definition of what the sq. is—that it could appear stunning to study that the Institute’s arrival was under no circumstances 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, obtained into the coach-­making enterprise, and in the end offered his pioneering railcar-making operation at 700 Major Road in 1855. However he remained extraordinarily curious about what was occurring round what was then referred to as Dock Sq., at the same time as he traveled all through the US, took a number of journeys to Europe, and made at the least one sojourn to Cuba. Throughout a go to to Havana within the 1850s, Davenport obtained the inspiration for creating 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 folks sat below 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 … 2 hundred 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 a number of the marshland on the Cambridge facet of the river. Upon returning to Boston, he started shopping for up extra. He finally collected 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, basically, the yard of each his personal former carriage works and Edward Kendall’s boiler-making operation.

advertisement for Davenport
A late nineteenth century commercial for the Charles Davenport Automotive Manufactory

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 have been crammed for business and residential developments. At low tide, the decrease Charles, together with the world close to Kendall Sq., turned 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 obtained energetic—and he meant to alter that. 

Davenport shaped 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 might 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., virtually precisely the place MIT now sits. 

Davenport envisioned “a boulevard alongside every river financial institution … 2 hundred 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 virtually occurred—and there would virtually 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 turned the Harvard Bridge, alongside what was later named Massachusetts Avenue). The Embankment Firm negotiated a deal. By giving up the land town wanted for an method 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 fitting to construct a seawall, assemble what’s now Memorial Drive, and fill all of the land the place MIT is now.”

Building 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 best way again to the railroad observe 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 business buildings, a requirement to make use of solely brick, iron, or stone as constructing supplies, and a minimal top of three tales and most top of eight.

map of a section of the Second Ward in Cambridge
In 1873, Cambridge’s Major Road (proven right here in two sections) ran via the marshlands of the Charles River.

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 slicing 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 growth. However the river facet of the rail line was nonetheless moist—and the marshlands reeked. By the late Eighteen Eighties, an ageing Davenport had basically retired from enterprise life. The Embankment Firm he had helped type continued however discovered it arduous 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 basically all the marshes and tide flats had been crammed—creating strong land from Harvard Sq. all the best way to East Cambridge. However little growth happened for a number of years after the despair. By 1902, solely the Riverbank Courtroom Resort at 305 Memorial Drive (now the MIT dorm Fariborz Maseeh Corridor), the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse, town armory (now MIT’s du Pont Athletic Heart), and a smattering of different buildings had been accomplished. The heaps Davenport’s group had envisioned for residential growth sat unsold for the following 20 years, regardless of the expansive river and metropolis views so interesting and wanted in the present day.

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.

The failure of Davenport’s plan opened the door for the arrival of MIT. Nevertheless it took an unlikely collection of occasions to convey the already well-known college to Cambridge in 1916. Just a few years earlier, in actual fact, the percentages have been nice that MIT itself wouldn’t lengthy exist as an unbiased 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 Enterprise College is in the present day. 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 bounds 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.

Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, needed that dwelling to be Harvard. Considered one of MIT’s inaugural chemistry professors, Eliot had change into 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 fame 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 part of forces. The fourth, Henry Pritchett, took the bait within the Nineties. 

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 truth was that MIT would lose its cherished independence and change into Harvard’s engineering college. That didn’t sit properly with college, employees, or many alums. As one account summed up the considerations: “Ought to the Institute now, after almost forty years’ wrestle, hand over its hard-won independence, sacrifice its elementary ideas, and yield a management gained the arduous approach to come below 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 awesome no. A survey despatched to alumni confirmed 2,035 opposed and solely 834 in favor. However, in June 1905, the Expertise Company gave the merger the inexperienced mild 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 Troopers Discipline in Brighton.

However there was one massive catch. Beneath the phrases of the settlement, MIT could be on the hook to “erect, furnish, and equip buildings having the capability of at the least its current buildings.” The college supposed to promote all or a part of its present land within the Again Bay to satisfy this obligation. However in September 1905, just a few months after the Expertise Company accredited 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 fitting to promote it. The union with Harvard fell via. Pritchett, who resigned as MIT president in 1907, is probably greatest recognized for the deal’s failure even in the present day.

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. Nevertheless it was put again on the desk below 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 job could be the relocation of MIT and the elevating of funds to construct the ‘New Expertise,’” the identify given to the envisioned new campus. (The prevailing one was recognized merely as Expertise.) 

Maclaurin’s eyes have 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 Road dwelling of Charles Stone, a founding father of the then 20-year-old engineering agency Stone & Webster (each Stone and cofounder Edwin Webster have 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 excellent for dimension, accessibility, and dignity of setting. An ideal and noble edifice might right here be erected that might be a worthy dwelling for the Institute.” Stone instructed Maclaurin it had already been dominated out, explaining that Cambridge would probably oppose one other tax-exempt college inside its borders, that Harvard would most likely object, and that a number of would-be donors—he will need to have been pondering of Higginson, Carnegie, and their companions—have been unlikely to offer generously to assist a transfer to that web site after the failed merger.

view of the Harvard Bridge toward Cambridge
How MIT ended up on Memorial Drive 10
image of MIT on Boylston Street in 1903
How MIT ended up on Memorial Drive 11
MIT president, Richard Maclaurin
How MIT ended up on Memorial Drive 12
map of MIT campus in 1905
The thought of shifting “Expertise” from its Boylston Road 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 enlargement web site launched with 4 most important standards: accessibility for college students, college, and the general public; affordability; area, with the potential for developing buildings “worthy of the institute’s significance”; and a location “unbiased of the affect of different establishments.” The choice committee’s report, submitted to Maclaurin in October 1910, famous that the committee had thought of at the least 24 websites, even evaluating the potential of constructing an island for the campus in the course of the Charles, the place the Harvard Bridge crossed it (this was quickly deemed impractical). Essentially 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, referred to 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 pricey and had lots 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 faculty’s potential objection to the transfer. Lastly got here the considerations 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. 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 obtained $400,000 from me for the Franklin Institute! I benefit from the joke! In addition to, I don’t put the Pittsburg college behind even the Massachusetts Institute of Expertise. 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 an element proprietor of that floor that my good friend Lee Higginson and a few of us bought to unite the 2 establishments, which needs 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. Nevertheless it was for a special web site, a golf course in Allston. So maybe in an effort to stir the pot, Maclaurin casually remarked to a newspaper reporter that “Expertise may need to drag up stakes and transfer to someplace the place the price of residing is inside its means.”

A number of 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 properly. The Chicago Night Put up boasted: “We might assist 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 Expertise would by no means, by no means contemplate,” 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 accredited 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 homeowners of the Riverbank space to purchase 46 acres of land bounded by Massachusetts Avenue on the west and Ames Road on the east, Vassar Road inland or north, and the esplanade. The envisioned campus didn’t lengthen east previous Ames Road towards Major Road, the place the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Sloan College of Administration, amongst different buildings, stand in the present day. Equally, the land southwest of Massachusetts Avenue—now dwelling to Kresge Auditorium, many pupil dorms (together with the transformed Riverbank Courtroom Resort), and the athletic middle—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 Resort Belmont in New York. They reportedly had a heat and earnest dialog, during which the MIT president detailed the plans for New Expertise. As Maclaurin’s spouse, Alice, later associated, “The bottom was damaged so fully in Mr. Eastman’s thoughts that my husband was astonished. When Mr. Eastman was about to go away, he all of the sudden requested: ‘What is going to it price to place up the brand new buildings?’ My husband answered that it might price about two and a half million {dollars}. Mr. Eastman mentioned, ‘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.

Though conveyance of the property to MIT happened on March 23, 1912, the identical day the subway line formally debuted, it might 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.

JA22 MIT excerpt books cover

The place Futures Converge

Robert Buderi was editor at giant after which editor in chief of Expertise Evaluate 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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