Design New England

Preservation, Politics, and Perseverance Are Key to Saving Cambridge

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Kudos to the editors of Saving Cambridge: Historic Preservation in America’s Innovation City for understanding that persuasion not preaching will earn support for their mission. Good writing also helps. If the aim of the book, published by the Cambridge Historical Society, is to raise the awareness of everyman to the significance of preserving historic touchstones, it has a good chance of succeeding.

It begins with compelling recollections of the struggles preservationists faced over the centuries. As far back as the post Revolutionary War era, some forefathers and mothers had the vision to save significant sites. After all, writes Charles M. Sullivan, one of the many contributors to the book and executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, “the town was justly honored as the birthplace of the American Army.” And, yes, “Washington actually slept here — in at least two places.” But while the mansions on Tory Row, a section of Brattle Street that is arguably the most significant, and certainly best-known historic district in the city today, survived, other landmarks such as the Inman mansion, headquarters to General Israel Putnam during the war, and forts in East Cambridge and Riverside were lost.
Sullivan goes on to document the highs and lows of preservationist efforts through the 19th and 20th centuries, but he leaves the contentious urban political struggles of the 1970s for contributors Michael Kenney, cochair of the Cambridgeport History Projects, and Gavin W. Kleespies, executive director of the historical society, to parse.
Theirs is Chapter One, which says something about the importance of those days of urban flight, eminent domain, and rent control and the impact they had on the fabric of the city. Titled “Preservation, Projects, and Politics,” it details the plan for an interstate highway that would have cut through the heart of working class neighborhoods and displaced their residents by the thousands. “Politics was not a dominant factor in the preservation movement of a century ago,” the authors write. “The new fights were focused in the grittier, working-class precincts . . . and involved tenants and small property owners, Roman Catholic clergy, and progressive-leaning politicians.”
“Cambridge Is a City, Not a Highway” became the rallying cry, hundreds of community meetings where held, and at one point some 1,500 protesters marched on the State House. “The project was finally scrapped n 1972,” the authors report, “but the controversy still had the power to resonate in 2012, when the Cambridge Historical Society sponsored a three-part symposium that drew audiences in the hundreds.”
The highway controversy readied the city for the next wave of progress, the extension of the subway, which had the potential for neighborhood disruption and threats to historic buildings. The historic commission was prepared this time and used the National Register to protect the iconic Harvard Square kiosk and an important building in Porter Square.

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Construction of the Red Line extension, ca. 1982. Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

But no one, it seems, was prepared for the neighbor vs. neighbor fight that came with the advent of rent control in 1970. Seen by advocates as the answer to a housing crisis that resulted from families leaving for the suburbs and the expansion of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Landlords quickly discovered that apartments could be rented to groups of students for rents much higher than what families could pay. “Rent Control seemed to be an effective way of holding the line on housing prices,” write Kenney and Kleespies, “but at the unforeseen cost of the deterioration of the house stock, as landlords were unwilling to pay for needed repairs. . . . On the other hand, buildings with rent-controlled units could not be demolished.” However, no preservationist thought this was the answer. When rent control was repealed, it opened the floodgates to gentrification. Young professionals and empty nesters bought and renovated properties to mixed results. “While buildings benefitted greatly from this investment,” CHC director Sullivan said, “the human cost has been enormous. Hundreds of elderly people and low- and moderate-income families were displaced, leaving the city attractive and prosperous but less diverse.”

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Map of Harvard University and Radcliffe College to celebrate the Tercentennial of the founding of Newe Towne College in 1636. Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Society Map Collection.

One does not need to be a Cantabridgian to appreciate such histories. They ring universally true for cities that must look forward and back. The eventual, sometimes tortured (it took some 16 years) development of Kendall Square, the technology and innovation hub of the city, and arguably of the Northeast, is a Cinderella story that other cities certainly envy (it is today “the most expensive commercial real estate in America”) but may never emulate. One wonders what the preservationists of tomorrow will make of it.
For them and for those interested in preservation today, the book offers clear, precise synopses of successful efforts to save historic buildings whether they were reborn, moved, or, less satisfying, lost and replicated. Tools such as easements and landmarking, historic designations and ordinances, and educating the public are explained in layman’s terms.

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G.W. Kleespies

The Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, part of the Cambridge Historical Society, undergoing restoration in 2013.

Anyone with some regard for local history will find the essays that tell the architectural, family, and historic stories of significant buildings captivating. But the Cambridge Historical Society was wise not to rely on that soft sell. Instead, it chose to reveal the struggle of preservationists and the properties to which they were trying to bring attention. It drives home the notion that preservation is not an elitist sport and that not only should the spoils of the upper class be saved, but that the history of a place is found in all its corners, and that the forts and the tenements will also leave a scar if they are ripped away.
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