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 ...

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.


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.


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.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that most people liked it. “Personally, I think it’s tremendously ugly,” says Mo Lotman, Somerville resident and author of “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History since 1950.” And yet, he says, “The Holyoke Center was pretty big in

changing the look and the feel of the Square because you took away five blocks of five or fewer-story buildings.”

“They weren’t all beautiful buildings,” he says, “but they were all buildings of that style with retail that fronted right on the sidewalk, and you replaced it with a ten-story superstructure.”


In other ways, Harvard Square has resisted change—in large part due to the battles of a certain staunch group of old-time Cantabrigians.

The Harvard Square Defense Fund, says one of its founders, Gladys “Pebble” P. Gifford, began in response to a 1972 proposal to construct the JFK Presidential Library and Museum on the Charles River, where the JFK Memorial Park is located today. “They were going to park the buses on the Lars Anderson Bridge,” she says. “They’d have these big Peter Pan tourist buses lined up along that stretch—in other words it was [going to be] chaos.”

Objections were shrill enough to halt the plans; nevertheless the occasion initiated civic organization in the Square. “This ragtag group of citizens decided it was pretty crazy because no one was looking after the town,” says Gifford. So the “ragtag group” hired a lawyer and was incorporated as the Harvard Square Defense Fund, meant to prevent further environmental and ecological deterioration of the Harvard Square area.

Although at times the Fund was unable to halt commercializing action, it celebrated a major victory with the Read Block at the corner of JFK St. and Mass Ave. “Cambridge Savings Bank owned that block,” says Lotman, “and they had plans to totally demolish it and replace it with a four-story mall.” Instead, political pressure from the Fund prompted the Cambridge Historical Commission to prevent any changes to the façade. The inside was entirely gutted, although, as Lotman says, “I don’t think many people realized that.”


Tension between change and tradition has long characterized Harvard Square. To tourists, the Square remains a destination in which to witness history—yet to those who serve them, history is embedded in the tourists’ ebb and flow. “Harvard Square is constantly changing,” says Kleespies, “and that’s the constant.” The problem for students and residents is, he says, “Everyone wants Harvard Square to remain what it was when they first saw it.”

Joe Calautti embodies this tension in his attitude toward the Square’s changes. “Too many coffee shops, too many pizza places,” he says. “I liked it better back then.” And yet, he concedes, “You never bring the time back—you go all the way forward, and not backward.”

This odd mixture of nostalgia, bitterness, and loyalty characterizes the attitudes of many in the Square, residents and students alike. Cohen acknowledges, too: “Nothing stays forever,” he says. “Except Harvard.”