HLS Houses Receive Award

Harvard’s restoration of three old mansions on the Harvard Law School campus in 2007 drew the Cambridge Historical Commission’s Preservation Award last Thursday, lending a dose of prestige to the aged structures where 26 Law School students currently reside.

The award, bestowed annually for historically accurate restorations of Cambridge-area houses, recognized the Law School’s work on a trio of 19th-century Victorian mansions, which were updated and moved 150 yards from their original sites to make way for the school’s Northwest Corner Project—a construction initiative aiming to create new classrooms and student spaces, scheduled for completion in 2011.

The three wood-front mansions—1637 Massachusetts Avenue, 3 Mellen Street, and Baker Hall—served for the first time as residences for Law School students this year.

The rich history of the three houses motivated the Law School to preserve their original exteriors, while the interiors—which had been renovated numerous times—were gutted and subsequently remodeled to accommodate student housing.

Douglas J.D. Walo, the Law School’s housing administrator, said that the buildings were “difficult to work with,” due to their age and period style.

Walo added that even though the houses have been almost entirely refurbished, the buildings still maintain their Victorian style. He noted Baker Hall’s stained glass windows, and all the houses’ woodwork as examples of continuity.

“It’s hard to replace that sort of old craft,” Walo said.

In the 19th century, when the houses were constructed, Massachusetts Avenue was the most prestigious street in Cambridge, said Charles M. Sullivan, the executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission. Merchants, who traveled through the Porter Square railroad station, contributed to the wealth of the area.

At one point, 69 wood-front mansions lined the avenue, Sullivan said.

But the area began to become more commercial in the early 1900s as the city’s population grew. According to Sullivan, there were no apartments or stores on Massachusetts Avenue until 1914, posing a stark contrast to the shop-lined hub that tourists see today.

“It was very important to preserve this history,” said Sullivan of the street’s residential character.

1637 Massachusetts Avenue is the largest of the restored wood-front buildings, and once housed a Ukrainian research institute before Harvard acquired the property. Now refurbished, it contains 11 apartments for residential use.