The skyline of Harvard’s Cambridge campus is dotted with steeples and bell towers. But look across the Charles River — into Boston’s Allston neighborhood — and you’ll see a mammoth steel structure.
The school is building a new, nearly half a million square-foot facility. It’s slated to open in 2020 and will house most of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Despite the steel structure and neon-clad construction workers, Harvard is not actually the new kid on the block. The school has a long history in Allston, dating back nearly 150 years.
In the 1800s, famed poet and professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would sit in his house on Brattle Street in Cambridge and gaze out the window. From his study, he could see across the Charles River onto tidal salt marshes in Allston. Beyond that, he could see the hills in Brighton. Longfellow would write poems about the vista.
“There was talk — after the Civil War — of establishing a slaughterhouse on [the Allston] side of the Charles River,” says Charles Sullivan, director of the Cambridge Historical Commission. Longfellow got wind of these plans and got nervous about protecting his view. So, he teamed up with friends to buy 70 acres of land in Allston.
They gave that land to Harvard University “with a restriction that it never be built on,” says Sullivan. “It’s still not built upon.”
But Harvard’s first plot of land in Allston may not be preserved quite how Longfellow had imagined. Today, the former marshes are athletic fields.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Harvard Law School expanded in Cambridge between Harvard and Porter Squares, displacing the university’s athletics facilities, which had been on Massachusetts Avenue. The various athletic buildings were moved to Allston, where space was at less of a premium.
The stadium was built in 1902 and 1903 at a time when Harvard’s football team was among the best in the country. The new stadium would often fill on game days with tens of thousands of fans. Built using a new technique involving reinforced concrete, the stadium — at the time it was built — was the largest concrete structure in the world.
Around that time, Harvard was not the only school feeling the real estate squeeze. MIT was then located in Copley Square and was quickly running out of space. Just as MIT set out on a quest to find more land, Harvard received a large gift to expand its science education.
So, the two schools hatched a plan to merge. Or, as Sullivan explains, “Harvard tried to take over MIT.” And, he says, “it almost happened. It got approved by the trustees of both Harvard and MIT. But it was never consummated.”
According to Sullivan, MIT alumni staged a rebellion and got the courts to stop the plan. But before everything ground to a halt, the universities had convinced Andrew Carnegie to buy a new campus for the joint venture. That plot of land was in Allston on the banks of the Charles River.
Some 20 years later, Harvard decided to use the land bought for the defunct MIT-Harvard marriage for a different purpose: the business school. Most of the red-brick and white-trim campus was built in two short years.
In the basement of the Veronica Smith Senior Center is a two-room museum run by the Brighton-Allston Historical Society. In one of the rooms there’s an exhibit on Barry’s Corner.
Barry’s Corner is just beyond Harvard Business School, where North Harvard Street meets Western Ave at a sharp angle. It’s Allston’s equivalent to Harvard Square — a funky shaped intersection about equidistant from the Charles River. The only catch: there is far less activity. In recent memory, the main attractions were a gas station, a Seven-Eleven and a Dunkin’ Donuts.
But 50 years ago, there was a thriving, working-class neighborhood located there. It’s documented in the Brighton-Allston Museum in black-and-white photos.
“The Boston Redevelopment Authority and the city basically made a decision to urban renewal this to oblivion,” says Charlie Vasiliades, the vice-president of the historical society, looking at photographs of Barry’s Corner from the 1960s. “It was a very prime location near Harvard and two major boulevards.”
Boston’s plan to raze all the houses didn’t go over well with the neighborhood. The Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, at the time described the community response as “guerilla-like warfare.” Residents chased surveyors out of the area and staged protests. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, now known as the Boston Planning and Development Agency, was aggressive too.
Vasiliades recounts a now infamous story about an elderly resident who had left her house to go shopping. “Apparently, the city had gone — and when she was out — removed her stuff and boarded up the house.”
Many local residents saw Harvard as complicit. The university was charged with contributing to local blight. Harvard owned some of the houses in the neighborhood and, in an article in The Crimson from the mid-1960’s, neighbors accused them of leaving homes dilapidated or boarded up.
“So, people were not fond of Harvard institutionally, but lot of Harvard students joined on the side of neighbors,” says Vasiliades.
After a nearly decade-long battle, the residents lost, and the neighborhood disappeared.
Now, 50 years later, Harvard owns that triangular plot of land, which is mostly used as a parking lot for construction workers. And, the university has acquired many more lots in Allston.
In 1997, the university admitted that between 1988 and 1994 they used a front company to secretly buy up land in the neighborhood. According to Vasiliades, Harvard was worried that owners would artificially increase their prices if they knew who was buying the land. Ultimately, they spent $88 million to acquire nearly 53 acres.
“It didn’t just infuriate neighbors who found out that Harvard was secretly buying up the land,” Vasiliades says, “it infuriated Mayor Menino.”
The mayor wrote a letter to Harvard’s president accusing them of a “full-scale attack” and saying their secret maneuverings demonstrated “the highest level of arrogance seen in our city in many years.”
Vasiliades says local residents worried the parcels would be land banked and remain vacant for years. Their worries were justified. At the time, Harvard did not have a specific plan for Allston and, still today, much of the land remains undeveloped.
“In September 1999, we had a kind of historic meeting,” says Dennis Thompson. He was then an associate provost at Harvard and chair of the physical-planning committee.
Presenting to the Harvard Corporation, one of Harvard’s two governing boards, Thompson recalls saying the Allston property “really should be used for an academic campus, not just for administrative offices, warehouses, or that sort of thing.” The corporation agreed and the university got to work planning a new campus.
“The biggest problem — the obvious problem — is the river,” says Thompson. “If you’re going to really try to have a unified campus, you’ve got to figure some way to make it easier to get back and forth across the river.”
He says crossing the windy, traffic-filled bridge posed a big psychological barrier. So, they started dreaming up solutions: there could be a tram that zips back and forth, or perhaps the bridge from North Harvard Street could become the American Ponte Vecchio — a pedestrian walkway with covered shops and food vendors. And Harvard hired a prestigious architecture firm that suggested something else.
“The proposal was to move the course of the river, so that the river wouldn’t divide Harvard’s land ownings between Cambridge and Allston,” says architect Jeffrey Inaba, who worked with the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
His team saw that there was no more room in Cambridge and none of the academic departments wanted to move across the river, so they had an ambitious plan: Why not move the river, diverting it to the far side of Harvard’s Allston property? As a bonus, all the landfill would give the university more space to build. And, in Inaba’s estimation, the local residents would benefit too.
“The river would run on an edge in Allston that would allow Allston to have a waterfront, whereas now in Allston most of the waterfront is occupied by Harvard,” says Inaba.
The plan to move the river never came to fruition. But Harvard did start building a sprawling campus in Allston, including a $1 billion science complex.
Everything came to a sudden halt with the 2008 financial crisis. The foundation was laid, but not more. The concrete expanse, and the steel foundation beneath it, remained empty for seven years.
Only last year did Harvard resume construction. They now have one big building in mind instead of an entire campus. Yet, the university still owns more than 350 acres in Allston, compared to just over 200 acres in Cambridge.
As the long march into Allston continues, it will be up to the incoming Harvard president, Lawrence Bacow, and his successors to help determine what happens with the rest of Harvard’s Allston property.
Lead image: An aerial view of the Harvard Stadium in 1929. (Credit: Aero Scenic Airviews Co., Courtesy of the Boston Public Library)