In June 1909, on the day before his inauguration as MIT’s president, Richard Maclaurin took a long walk. From his Back Bay office, he ventured over the Harvard Bridge to Cambridge to inspect a barren parcel of riverfront land that might be suitable for a new campus. Seven years later, he stood on that same parcel to dedicate the “New Tech,” the architectural and engineering marvel that was MIT’s new home.
MIT’s Boston quarters had been bursting at the seams since the late 19th century. The school’s educational program had steadily evolved, spawning new departments, and enrollments were rising. With no dormitories, a tiny student union, and buildings scattered over several blocks, MIT was at a competitive disadvantage. Clearly, it was time to move. The size, majestic setting, and accessibility of the Cambridge parcel seemed ideal. In March 1912, MIT purchased almost 50 acres for $775,000.
The plan was to build academic buildings, a dormitory, a larger student center, and a president’s house. Maclaurin and his building committee began by considering proposals from familiar designers. One submitted by John Ripley Freeman ‘76, an MIT Corporation member and a prominent civil engineer, emphasized function over aesthetics. Mark Jarzombek, professor of architecture and author of Designing MIT: Bosworth’s New Tech, surmises that Freeman based his design on automotive and shoe factories.
Freeman proposed that to save space and students’ time, MIT’s academic departments would occupy one large building–a departure from typical American college design. He suggested a building with a reinforced concrete frame and supporting columns at its center, creating a corridor. (Today, reinforced concrete is common, but in the early 20th century it was a new technology used mostly for factories and bridges.) Walls perpendicular to the corridor could then be dropped into place to create classrooms or offices and moved later to accommodate the Institute’s changing needs. Freeman’s design also used large windows to provide natural light.
MIT liked the single-building idea but rejected Freeman’s design in January 1913. Within a month, Maclaurin chose a new architect: William Welles Bosworth ‘89, who had designed the AT&T Building in New York.
Bosworth accepted the premise of a building that unified MIT’s academic departments. He even used some of Freeman’s ideas for the main building: the central corridor, concrete frame, and large windows. But he mixed a modern interior with a classical exterior. “MIT saw itself as a powerful institution, not as just some factory sitting in the backwater of Cambridge,” Jarzombek says. “It wanted to have a huge physical and symbolic presence, so the classical dressing was very appropriate.”
The campus was a triumph of engineering. The ground beneath it consisted of fill (largely mud from the Charles River and earth from subway excavations), so 22,000 piles were driven down to a more stable layer of glacial deposits. The sheer size of the main building (now Buildings 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, and 10) presented another challenge, Jarzombek says. At the time, it was “the largest single unified building in the United States,” he notes, and the first private building at this scale made of concrete. Technology Review reported in 1914 that “the making of the cement was practically a continuous process, the chutes of the construction towers delivering without cessation a liquid lake of cement covering an acre at an operation.” Once the foundation was in place, the building rose as a unit, almost one foot per day. Finally, the white limestone facade was added.
The Cambridge campus, which Maclaurin called a “great white city,” was finished in 1916, at a cost of $7 million. Despite campus growth over the ensuing 90 years, Jarzombek writes, the main building remains remarkably unchanged, an icon “without equal in the American architectural context.”
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