Harvard Square then and now

When Joseph S. Calautti, owner of Rizzo Tailors, gazes out of his second-floor window overlooking Church Street, he sees not one but many Harvard Squares. Pointing at an angle toward Anthropologie and City Sports, he recalls, “There was a house there. They leased the land for a hundred years.” The house was demolished in 1953 when renowned architect Benjamin Thompson established Design Research, an innovative furniture store, housed until its bankruptcy in the building still standing today. “It was beautiful back then,” Calautti says, “because it was only one store, all the way up.” Today offices and retail stores compete for space, each window adorned with a different pattern or none at all. “For me,” says Calautti, “no good.”

Calautti’s comments signal a broader and paradoxical theme in the shifting visual landscape of Harvard Square—of fragmentation within constancy. “Harvard Square, it’s always going to be Harvard Square,” the tailor says, “no matter what.” Yet this implies a constant state of flux, giving rise to the vehemence of those decrying the growing gentrification of the Square and its perceived loss of uniqueness. Change, however, is not new here: it is tied up inextricably with the Square’s history, latched to its pulse.

TREADING THE LINE

Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director of the Cambridge Historical Society, points to geography as the original source of Harvard Square’s odd mix of stasis and change. “It’s very easy,” Kleespies concludes, “to think about the history of Harvard Square entirely through the history of transportation.” The Square thrived as a transfer point for streetcars, which ended each day at a massive industrial plot in what today is the Kennedy School and Kennedy Memorial Park.

The subway was introduced in 1910, and Harvard Square continued to serve as a hub for Boston-bound commuters. Sheldon Cohen, founder of Out of Town News, remembers serving customers in waves during the morning and evening rush hours.

When the Red Line expanded to Alewife in the early 1980s, locals feared that the look and feel of Harvard Square would change for good.

“There [was] a lot of consternation and a lot of fear,” says Kleespies, “that if the Red Line [were] extended to Alewife all the people in the suburbs who are coming in and stopping in Harvard Square and then going on to Boston were no longer going to do that”—which would spell ruin for Square businesses.

However, he continues, “That did not happen. In fact, the exact opposite happened.” Improved access to the Square proved a boon for retailers.

Cohen notes that the rhythm of the Square did change with the extension: “You didn’t have the rush hour with buses,” he says, “the hustle and bustle.”

“But you know,” he continues, “people would come out of the subway and they’d go upstairs, they’d buy the paper, they’d go back downstairs.” Flux settled into a new rhythm; change nestled into continuity.

THE HOLYOKE SPECTER

To many visitors and students, the Holyoke Center is an unfortunate blemish on the charm of the Square. “It didn’t really age well; it didn’t fit into the area around it very well,” says Kleespies.

But to him that incongruity belies its significance as a larger trend rather than as an ill-fated gaffe.

“It’s worth noting,” says Kleespies, “that Harvard Square is an epicenter of modernist architecture.” The Harvard Graduate School of Design, in fact, pioneered the American modernist movement in the 1940s and ’50s. The school attracted such prominent architects as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Josep Lluis Sert.

All worked to design University buildings such as the Carpenter Center and Harkness Commons. With the Holyoke Center, Sert envisioned a melding of urban and educational space that fit in with his broader urbanist architectural vision.

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