Monday, July 26, 2010

Variance Finalized in East Cambridge

The area of East Cambridge was declared an official Port of Entry by Congress in 1805. Had it not been for President Jefferson's trade embargo of 1807, Cambridge may today be a major city that overshadows its quaint suburb of Boston. In 1809 East Cambridge opened for industrial development. It's proximity to an elaborate system of canals, the Charles River, Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean made a sensical spot for industries to locate. Andrew Craigie, one of the large Cambridge land owners attracted the county courthouse and jail by offering to donate new buildings in 1814. By 1880 it was the industrial center of Cambridge.
Large soap, glass and furniture factories attracted thousands of Irish immigrants who provided labor and sought housing in the neighborhood. Today, East Cambridge is a mecca for biotech companies but is still a mix of industrial space, county buildings and many historical homes.
Unless you live or work in the neighborhood, even many Cambridge residents may not frequent the neighborhood unless they're going to jury duty, getting a divorce, serving time...or filing a Variance Decision with the Registry of Deeds. Two entire city blocks of commanding brick buildings house the county offices and courthouses and my trip to the Registry reminded me how beautiful this area of Cambridge is.
The Middlesex County Registry of Deeds houses property records going back to 1649. Can you imagine? If there's any metaphor for going through the variance process, I felt it a bottom of this imposing staircase and monumental columns. It seems like a long arduous trek but if you just take one step at a time...another step...and another step...and another step....well, okay, maybe there's more steps here, but taking each little steps gets you closer to the end. (As it turns out, this is the back door, damn it; and the door is locked!) So as soon as I walk back down and around the block to the front entrance, I'll get to the end.

Once inside the building and through the metal detectors needed for the Probate Court, there's a huge open marble space with more massive columns, ornate wrought iron railings, decorative plaster covered with cheap plastic signs about where to go, what to do--mostly what not to do--and overwhelming directories for all the offices in the building. Inside the Registry, a huge open space swarming with activity, filing the Variance Decision was really quite easy. There's an information desk where you take a number, my number was called within 5 minutes and after writing a check for $75, I was on my way with the final document that I can take to the building department to get my building permit.

I'm done! I'm Done! I'M DONE!!

But before we start the party, let's poke around the neighborhood a little bit.
I absolutely love this block of townhouses with Greek Revival porticos. I looked them up in the Harvard database and they were all built the same year as my house. They've got some great details but upon closer inspection, there's some really crazy twists and tilts in the structures.
This porch leans a little to the right. You can see it the most at the bottom left-hand side of the door. The sidelights are original but the door is 1940s I would guess.
This porch leans a little to the left. It's a very nontraditional color but I think it works in this group of homes. It has the same original sidelight with the tiny mullions. Beautiful but not too energy efficient.
And the next one is leaning to the right again. These are definitely replaced sidelights. And all those wires. Can't they do something about that?
This row of brick townhomes are really lovely.
Right now I'm really focusing on sidelights, doors and lighting fixtures which I have to order this week. Remember this combination?
This is actually a Greek Revival--you can tell by the triangle (the pediment) at the top and the wide pilasters (cornerboards) at "hold up" the triangle--but it's been "Victorianized."It still has the original sidelights and transom window but the original columns have been replaced with thinner, decorative columns, dainty fretwork on the corners and sweet railings around the porch. It's totally wrong if you're a purist but it's really sweet in a way.
A local Urban Cottage follower that lives in this neighborhood--hi, Anne!--recommended that I swing by this place to check it out. It's an 1820 building, originally a bank, turned church in the 1920, and now carriage-house style property. I would LOVE to see the inside of this. Can I leave them a note on their door?
And check out the gorgeous light. Doesn't it look like a Chinese ginger jar? I'm noticing a significant number of chinoiserie light fixtures on Greek Revival homes. (Go back and look at the light on the pink "Victorian" Greek Revival) Obviously there was no electricity at the time but the Greek Revival period is still during the time of the Old China Trade so it somehow seems believable that chinoiserie of some kind would find its way into or onto a Greek Revival home.
Here's another house, not really a Greek Revival because there's no pediment or pilasters but it definitely has a Greek Revival Porch. Notice how tightly the houses are packed in. This seems very common in this neighborhood.
They've painted half of the entablature (the massive beam above the columns) red which is really unusual but I'll admit that it beautifully highlights the ionic columns. And I could see in the windows. I'd like an invite to this one too!
Here's another beautifully restored Greek Revival. One thing I notice is that there are many more ionic columns in this neighborhood. They're fancier. And this is one of only a few in this neighborhood that have the front windows that go to the floor. I'm glad I decided to add that detail.
I don't like the sidelights not having mullions but check out the light. A little like an Asian lantern, don't you think?
I'm not sure if this is an authentic Gothic Revival but I love the windows, the amazing sunburst detail up on gable and the bright red door.
And although I focused on public buildings and homes in this post, I just wanted to point out the extremes of the neighborhood by showing you this Frank Geary building at MIT. Geary is more famous for his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, but it's pretty cool to have one in the neighborhood.

So there's a little tour of East Cambridge.

Oh, and if you work at the Registry of Deeds and you're reading this, can you put a stupid sign at the bottom the steps outside your back door?


  1. Thank you for the tour. The neighbourhood is lovely. Congrats on your variance! Can't wait to see what you do.

  2. hi steve,

    love, love this. the details are what hypnotize me. i can stare at them all day long. love the carriage house property with the lantern. love.


  3. Good Morning! I just love when you take us on tours of the history of your town and the gorgeous homes. It's interesting how some towns have retained so much history and some show very little signs of being around for 100s of years. I appreciate how the people of Cambridge respect the architectural details of the buildings. The homes you showed are just amazing! Like you, I could study the colors, lighting and architecture all day long! I especially like the pink doors with the gray.
    I really enjoyed the tour....
    Congratulations on the permit!!! Are you ready to get going? :)

  4. Really great post and the architecture is really inspiring because of the history.

    I'll take an old row house over a Geary any day!

    kelley : )

  5. Congratulations on getting your final variance! Yay for you and the house!! Loved this tour through your town, which I happened to drive through unexpectedly last weekend! Seems "slow route" had been checked on the NavSystem and I took the long way to the fabric store and there I was in Cambridge! Thought of you! I'm so dangerous driving through the towns- my head is on a swivel looking at all of the gorgous homes!

  6. Hey - I'm just getting myself caught up on the blog - and can't wait to read about my neighborhood tonight. Thanks for covering! : )

  7. I'm so proud of my little neighborhood. Lots of hidden gems for sure. Thanks for covering. I DO think you should leave a note on the carriage house and cover it for us on the blog. Please?