Tag Archives: Cambridge Historical Commission

WPA Muralist Elizabeth Tracy Painting at the CPL

Muralist Elizabeth Tracy painting the “Development of the Printing Press,” courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission, Cambridge Photo Morgue Collection.

To follow up on our post about muralist Elizabeth Tracy, our friends at the fantastic Cambridge Historical Commission sent us a photograph of Tracy in action with fellow muralist, Arthur Willis Oakman.  Tracy and Oakman are painting “the Development of the Printing Press,” on the west wall of the Library’s Reading Room.  This mural follows the evolution of the printing press from Guttenberg in 1449 through the invention of the cylindrical press by Hoe and Co. in 1820. At the center is the 1639 Stephen Daye press of Cambridge, the first press in America.

The photograph, along with a large collection of the Cambridge Historical Commission’s photographs, can be found on the Digital Commonwealth website.



Free Workshop Series: Researching the History of Your Cambridge House

Fosgate’s Groceries and Provisions, circa 1894-1902, 1853 Massachusetts Avenue, From the Glass Plate Negatives, circa 1904-1909 (002).

Researching the History of Your House with the City of Cambridge
Join staff members from the Cambridge Historical Commission, the City of Cambridge Department of Public Works and the Cambridge Room at the Cambridge Public Library for a three-week series on researching the history of your house or building.

Registration is mandatory, though you do not have to attend all three sessions (though we highly recommend it!). For your convenience, each department will offer two days of the same session – one in the evening and one in the afternoon.

To register, please check out the schedule below and contact the person listed. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Session 1: The Cambridge Room at the Cambridge Public Library
This hour-long, hands-on workshop will guide you through a variety of online resources that will help you research your home from the comfort of your home. Discover when your building was built and by who.  Find out who lived in your house and how your neighborhood has changed.  We will provide laptops. Registration is mandatory.

Monday, October 16
6:00 – 7:00 PM
Community Room


Wednesday, October 18
3:00 – 4:00 PM
Beech Room

Led by Alyssa Pacy, Archivist at the Cambridge Public Library.  To register, email: apacy@cambridgema.gov or call 617-349-7757

Session 2: Cambridge Historical Commission
The Commission’s research collection is founded on an architectural inventory that contains survey forms, photographs, and documentation on all 13,000+ buildings in the City. Participants will learn how individual homes can be researched using these inventory files, as well as the Commission’s collection of city directories, atlases, maps, photographs, books on the City’s different neighborhoods, and some deed, tax, and building permit records.

Monday, October 23

6:00 – 7:00 PM


Wednesday, October 25

2:00 – 3:00 PM

Led by Cambridge Historical Commission staff.  To register, email: egonzalez@cambridgema.gov or call: 617-349-4070

Session 3: Cambridge Department of Public Works
The public works collection is primarily focused on sewer & drain utility drawings and plans showing the boundaries of the public rights of way. But many of these and other records, which go as far back as 1840, also include interesting historical facts such as previous building, street, and water body configurations as well as ancient industries, property owner names and assessment values. Participants will learn how individual locations can be researched with geographic, database, and online indexes and they’ll see how those indexes have evolved.

Monday, October 30
6:00 – 7:00  PM


Wednesday, November 1
2:00 – 3:00 PM

Led by George Stylianopoulos, City of Cambridge Department of Public Works.  To register, email: sgeorge@cambridgema.gov

General questions about the series? Call 617-349-4683.

Introducing the new Cambridge Historical Commission Blog!

Our fellow archivists at the Cambridge Historical Commission have just launched a new blog.  On it you will find highlights from collections, staff and researcher favorites, and stories about Cambridge history.

One of our favorites is a post about the Cambridge Historical Commission Architectural Survey File.  The Commission has a file on every address in the city, a resource that is unique in New England and perhaps in America.  Between 1964 and 1977, the Commission surveyed and photographed every building in Cambridge.  These files contain architectural survey forms, photographs, newspaper clippings and anything of interest relating to the current building or demolished building on the site.  These survey files are a priceless resource.  We often send patrons to the Commission to search these files and soon they will be available online.

An example of an architectural survey form from CHC’s files.




The Joy of Historical Research

From the Glass Plate Negatives (002).

We recently came across a mystery in our photo collection.  The photograph above was described as the Inman House, although we were doubtful after comparing it to known images of the Inman House (see below).

From An Historic Guide to Cambridge, complied by members of the Hannah Winthrop chapter, National society, Daughters of the American revolution, opposite page 179.


So we asked Charles Sullivan, Director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, to confirm that our photograph was mislabeled.  Charles got back to us immediately with the following information:

“The photo…is definitely not the Inman House; the only resemblance is the wrap-around porch.  I think the location is 1445 Cambridge Street, an 1839 house on the corner of Line Street that was razed in 1927.”

Charles then went on to detail his research path.  He forwarded me the 1900 Sanborn Atlas, noting that the atlas shows porches and foundation footprints, and that the three-sided wrap-around porch that stands out in the plan was rare for the time.  He continues, “Also, the topography matches, and the tree-decker at the extreme right is in the right position.”  He then goes on to astonish by finding articles that describe the house at 1445 Cambridge Street and its sale: Cambridge Tribune 10 March 1900 and 18 June 1904.

Thank you again, Mr. Sullivan, for your help.  We will be sure to send you more challenging questions soon.


The Mystery is Solved: Charles H. Fosgate Grocery and Provision Store

Fosgate’s Groceries and Provisions, circa 1904-1909, From the Glass Plate Negatives, circa 1904-1909 (002).

Thanks to Charles Sullivan, Executive Director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, we have an answer:

“The Fosgate picture [above] dates between 1894, when the street was renumbered, and before 1902, when the building was moved to the rear so the present building could be built. The bridge in question is the Mass. Ave. bridge over the MBTA’s Fitchburg line, just outside the right margin if the photo.”

Cambridge is lucky to have the Cambridge Historical Commission.  The depth of knowledge that the CHC staff has about the history of Cambridge, especially its built environment, cannot be matched.   Thank you Charles Sullivan!

Preserving Cambridge: 2015 Winners

93 Inman Street (1870), Before.

This year’s Preservation Awards are being highlighted in a special exhibition on the library’s second floor case. Winners include the Lesley University’s Lunder Arts Center, Harvard Art Museum, and the NEGEA Building at 130 Bishop Allen Drive among many other commercial and residential projects. The Cambridge Historical Commission presented the awards on May 27th. View the fantastic slideshow here and see how the buildings have been transformed.

93 Inman Street (1870), After.

Preserving Cambridge: An Exhibition

Before: 1161 Cambridge Street

After:  1161 Cambridge Street, Cambridge Preservation Award Winner, 2012

Preserving Cambridge

Exhibition Location: 2nd Floor of the Main Library

The Cambridge Preservation Awards Program, inaugurated by the Historical Commission in 1997, celebrates outstanding projects and notable individuals who conserve and protect the city’s architecture and history.  Awards are given each May for projects completed within the previous calendar year.  May is National Preservation month.

Seven project categories are eligible for Cambridge Preservation Awards:  restoration, rehabilitation, adaptive use, neighborhood conservation, landscape preservation, archaeology, and education/outreach.  Awards are based on the following criteria:

  • historical and architectural significance of the property,
  • exceptional quality of the project,
  • extent to which the project contributed to the preservation of the property,
  • impact of the project on the preservation of the city’s historic resources.

Previous award-winning projects have included residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial properties as well as historic landscapes.  The exhibit features before and after photographs of past award winners and demonstrate the hard work of owners, architects, carpenters, and other craftsmen to preserve these buildings for future Cantabrigians to enjoy.

The Cambridge Preservation Awards Program is May 27, 2015.  The public is welcome.   View the invitation here:  Preservation_2015.

Tips for Researchers: What’s in a (Street) Name?

I love a reference challenge, but it’s also gratifying to get a question and be able to give the asker the answer almost immediately. Though when we archivists do this it may seem like magic, most of the time it’s just knowing where to look and to what resources to point people. My time in the Cambridge Room is helping me immensely when it comes to performing this parlor trick with Cambridge-related queries.

For example, do you ever walk down a street in Cambridge and wonder for what or for whom it was named? The Cambridge Historical Commission has you covered with their comprehensive list of the origins of Cambridge Street Names. If your wonderings/wanderings take you further and you want to know about a particular address, the myCambridge database about which Alyssa told you in an earlier post and the database of Cambridge Buildings and Architects maintained through Harvard are great resources for delving a bit more deeply into the history of Cambridge addresses from the comfort of your computer or mobile device. And if you’re of an analytical bent, there’s a fun set of maps over on Bostonography based on the latter that provide a visualization of the types of Cambridge street names and where they are in the city.

 streetsnearCPLStreets near the future site of the Main Library of the Cambridge Public Library, from the Atlas of the City of Cambridge, Middlesex Co., Massachusetts, by G.M. Hopkins, 1873

So you’ve found the namesake for your street – where next? If you’re really lucky, your street is named after someone well-known enough to have his or her own Wikipedia page, or has a sufficiently unusual name to be easily Google-able. Though you’ll have to vet the results for yourself, the resources you uncover are a great place to start and can lead you down many fascinating paths. You may also want to check WorldCat, to see what relevant material has been cataloged at libraries around the world, and ArchiveGrid, for material in archival repositories. If your person is a pre-20th century Cambridge celebrity, the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, which the Society has put online, can be really helpful; check the index for references in papers published between 1905 and 1979.

And if you’re stumped, how about contacting your friendly local archivist and giving her or him a shot at it? Like I said, we love a challenge.

Mystery Photo #3 Identified

13 St. John’s Road, circa 1960s, copyright Bertram Adams.

Thanks to our friend, Charlie Sullivan, at Cambridge Historical Commission, we have identified another in our mystery photo series.  The house was originally built on 14 Appian Way in 1821 but was moved to its new location at St. John’s Road in 1963, presumably to build Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.