Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Cambridgeport Savings Bank Building in Central Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A city purchase of the circa 1904 beaux-arts style Cambridgeport Savings Bank Building in Central Square got enthusiastic backing Monday by city councillors, even if there wasn’t a firm idea of what the building should become.

“The city should make some attempt – if it is indeed up for sale – to purchase this building so it can be used for some community or civic use,” said E. Denise Simmons, proposing an “anchor” community center for Central Square.

Quinton Zondervan saw it as the future home of a Cambridge museum, while Dennis Carlone saw it as a place to relocate the Inspectional Services Department, License Commission, Historical Commission and other municipal offices out of 831 Massachusetts Ave., on the other side of City Hall. “The existing Lombardi Building is less than civic in many ways, and the building we’re talking about has a civic presence,” Carlone said. “And there’s enough space in there to move people there, which would allow the existing Lombardi Building to serve another use – possibly even affordable housing in a new building on that site.”

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui noted that she gets many calls from community groups looking for space to rent and rooms to use for celebrations.

All agreed that they looked forward to a process to decide the best use for the space – assuming the city manager acted on their wishes to buy.

“Like any bit of property that goes on the market in Cambridge, it probably won’t stay for very long. So I hope the manager moves on this quickly with a phone call tomorrow morning,” councillor Marc McGovern said.

The 689 Massachusetts Ave. building is owned by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. In her order suggesting a purchase of the property, Simmons did not say how the council heard it would sell; but its major ground-floor tenant (and former building owner), a Citizens Bank branch, plans to move across the street to a space vacated by Rodney’s Bookstore last year.

Inspired by the French

The construction of the three-story bank building – 25,385 square feet on a 10,101 square foot lot – was inspired by the architectural principles of French beaux-arts designers introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, “especially the expressive power of majestic, all-white buildings,” the Historical Commission’s Charlie Sullivan and Eric Hill wrote in an Aug. 25 report. “Influenced by these ideas, leaders of financial institutions across the country, including the board of the Cambridgeport Bank, began to see the symbolic benefits of occupying their own distinguished buildings. The bankers in Central Square wanted a design that would showcase their success and stability.”

The report was written in response to a 100-signature citizen petition asking to explore whether the building should be landmarked. The July 30 request was combined with one to initiate a landmark designation study of the neighboring Cambridge Gas Light Co. Building at 727 Massachusetts Ave., but executive director Sullivan separated the projects before a vote. Commissioners agreed to study the Gas Light building and decided against a study of the bank building.

“I don’t know why that happened,” resident James Williamson said during public comment. “I think it was a mistake.”

The commission report, while agreeing that the building “clearly meets the criteria for landmark designation,” indicated staff was stretched too thin to take on the study for a building that faced no “immediate threats to its architectural integrity.”

“Beautiful, gorgeous, incredible”

If the city picks up the property, assessed at $5.7 million and last sold in 2007 for $4.6 million, at least the councillors seem to revere the building as it is. McGovern and Simmons gave a personal spin to its history, with both recalling its use over the decades as a bank – and McGovern noting that it was where he got his first passbook savings account as a 6-year-old. Simmons called it “beautiful.” McGovern went further.

“It is a gorgeous building,” he said. “This is an opportunity, if it should go forward, to have the city purchase this incredible building, this historic building, and then work with the community to figure out what the best use is for the community rather than going to a private developer who may want to use it for something that is not as community oriented.”

City staff have been exploring a reconfiguration of municipal offices since 2016 that already included City Hall, the Lombardi Building, the YWCA family shelter behind it and 859 Massachusetts Ave., the former home of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.