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Red Brick Disproportionately Dominates Harvard Square, Dismaying Preservationists and Influencing Contracts


By Alessandra M. Galloni, Crimson Staff Writer

There is such a thing as too much red brick.

But it has taken Harvard Square 300 years to realize it.

A wave of New England colonial nostalgia has led to the construction of new red brick buildings, homes, stores, and pathways in Harvard Square during the past three decades.

But now many community members and organizations that have lobbied for red brick buildings in the past worry that the Square is suffering from a severe case of sameness.

"It's been overdone," said Gladys M. Gifford, Harvard Square Defense Fund president. "The general feeling is that red brick is compatible... and nobody is very courageous."

Red brick may be popular. But is it authentic?

Both the Harvard Square Defense Fund and the Cambridge Historical Society say, "not entirely." While the myth of colonial Cambridge may be red brick, the 18th Century revolutionary reality happened in humble wood, experts say.

To be sure, historians say red brick is an authentic representation of Cambridge in the 1800s.

"In the late colonial period, almost nothing was red brick," said John Glasgow, Professor of Architecture at the Design School. "That comes from the 19th century."

Both the Defense Fund and the Cambridge Historical Society are now trying to keep some evidence of the 1700s in the Square.

"We're trying to get away from [red brick] and go back," said Erika Bruner, an official of the Cambridge Historical Society. "We want to show the ravages of time."

"We tried to keep a lot of wood buildings," said Gifford. "On Mt. Auburn street, for example, a wooden frame construction is now a very mundane brick building."

But preservationists have run into a brick wall in dealing with local contractors.

Ever since Harvard's building boom in the early 1800s, red brick buildings have remained a symbol of old New England industrial Yankee charm.

In the middle of this century, community groups insisted on using red brick to construct new or renovate old buildings, and developers saw this as an easy way to gain acceptance of their contracts, said Charles Sullivan, president of the Cambridge Historical Committee.

"There was a great deal of community involvement," said Sullivan. "They asked for brick that would match Harvard University."

Harvard it seems, is a bastion of red brickism.

"It's because red brick wears well and looks classy around Harvard," Glasgow said.

When Graham Gund Architects began work on the Inn at Harvard, the University Planning Committee, which commissioned and oversaw the building of the hotel, wanted it to match the style of the college, said Alec Holser, an associate of Graham Gund architects.

"We mostly tried to make it fit in with the academic buildings," said Holser "They rent out the rooms to people associated with the university."

But lower cost combined with durability, packaged in a pleasant, traditional look, has perhaps been the greatest factor in red brick reproducibility in the Square.

"The stuff built in red brick looks nice," said Glasgow. "Buildings like William James and the Carpenter Center are not aging very well."

"When you make it look like red brick it becomes timeless," he said.

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