Skip to Content

Genius loci

Mass Ave: A love affair

Public art in Porter Square (Gift of the Wind, Susumu Shingu, 1985). Sketch: Peter Kuttner FAIA

It started with a general loss of orientation. Not an unusual occurrence, but as a transplant from the Midwest in the 1970s, I was completely perplexed navigating Boston. Raised a child of the great suburban grid and five-digit house addresses, I was bewildered by the number of streets that didn’t continue more than a few blocks and, if they did, couldn’t seem to keep the same name. Stories of Boston’s wandering cow paths seemed to satisfy locals, but we had cows galore back home, with none of the resultant street chaos.

Then, suddenly, Massachusetts Avenue found me. I started work at Cambridge Seven Associates, where our loft studio space overlooked the street, just outside Harvard Square. Although the title “Avenue” seemed pretentious to me, I soon learned to call it by its less formal diminutive “Mass Ave,” and a friendship grew. That first summer in Cambridge, my wife, Elaine, and I were shanghaied into the crew putting on the Second Annual Cambridge River Festival. We were picked up at 4:00 in the morning one Saturday in our partner Paul Dietrich’s old Volkswagen van, filled with tanks of helium. Over the next few hours, we attached 1,000 bright red balloons to every post and pole we could reach along Mass Ave, from one end of Cambridge to the other. We met dawn touching nearly every inch from Arlington to Boston.

My first job at C7A was the MBTA Red Line Extension from Harvard to Alewife. I was a project architect for the Porter Square subway station and got to know Mass Ave literally from the underside. The T excavated Mass Ave to renovate the shallow buried station in Harvard Square, and then a little north of the Cambridge Commons the tracks turn to tunnels and begin the rapid dive to Porter Square. There, the deepest station in the system is 11 stories below grade, below the same bedrock that supports Mass Ave.

Since then we’ve continued to engage our avenue. During the blizzard of 1978, we had staff skiing down Mass Ave to the Pru to rescue artifacts from our “Where’s Boston?” visitor center. In 1980 we created a rainbow of balloons across Mass Ave, from Putnam to Trowbridge, for the 350th anniversary of Cambridge’s founding.

Public art in Everett Square (Clapp Pear, Laura Baring-Gould, 2007). Sketch: Peter Kuttner FAIA

Eventually, I found my way outside Cambridge and began to understand how Mass Ave ties together so many communities and interests. It moves from historic town centers to vibrant squares as it links Lexington and Arlington; Porter, Harvard, and Central squares; and then heads into Boston. It crosses Back Bay, somewhat rudely cutting off the alphabetical orderliness (ending it after Hereford Street), and cruises on. It connects cultural institutions, the Church of Christ Scientist headquarters, the Boston Symphony, Boston Medical Center. You can take a college-visit trip from Harvard to Lesley to MIT to the Boston Architectural College to Berklee and to Northeastern in a single bus ride — and what could be more appropriate — it’s the No. 1 bus that travels Mass Ave!

The street seems to have a modest birth in Dorchester at Edward Everett Square and appears from mixed parentage, with Boston Street, East Cottage Street, and Norfolk Avenue crossing Columbia Road and somehow becoming Mass Ave. Today my landmark for the origin is Laura Baring-Gould’s sculpture Clapp Pear. Then Mass Ave makes it more than 20 miles to the northwest, where the anchor at the other end is the Minuteman National Historic Park. The street has its place in history: In April 1775, Paul Revere and William Dawes Jr. both used parts of the future Mass Ave (then known as the “Great Road”) for the ride to Lexington to warn of the approaching British march.

Today we live in Cambridge, just off Mass Ave. When our eldest son was living here, the road connected us with his family in Dorchester, and now it links us to our younger son in the South End. I’ve been looking over it from C7A for nearly 40 years of hustle and bustle, fire trucks and ambulances, subways and buses, and plenty of people. It is, indeed, a “Great Road.”