A very grand Shoe & Leather Exposition Building went up along the Charles in 1909, but didn’t last
Republished with permission from Cambridge Historical Commission, today’s guest Did You Know? bloggers.
Shoe and leather interests in Boston and Cambridge began to envision a trade exhibition building in 1907 for marketing and selling. Led by Oran McCormick, the group canvassed the cities looking for prime real estate on which to build a venue worthy of the world’s first Shoe & Leather Exposition; McCormick ended up buying land from property owners along the underdeveloped Charles River Road (now Memorial Drive). At the time, Cambridge restricted heights of buildings along the river, but the Board of Aldermen, fearing the deal would fall through and the building and its revenue would be lost to Boston, called a special meeting with the Common Council and removed the restriction, permitting the exposition building for construction.
Plans for the development – already in the works – were drawn by Edward T.P. Graham, a prominent local architect best known for Roman Catholic church designs in and around Cambridge. His white, 500-foot building was constructed of wood, concrete and steel and was Classical Revival in the grandest sense, evoking memories of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The building featured five domes: a large central one to represent America and capped with a U.S. flag, and four smaller ones to represent Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe with their respective labeled flags. The main dome measured 125 feet from the ground floor. Under it, anchoring two exhibition wings, was a circular theater – an entirely new concept for exhibition buildings – with seating for upward of 3,000 people on the upper tier. There was a round bandstand on the ground floor, with performances every hour while the fair was open.
Two interior corridors ran the length of the building lined with mahogany-and-glass display cases that were electrically lit to display exhibitors’ leather shoes and goods. Flanking the exhibits, 6- by 14-foot sample rooms showcased the finest products and dealers staffed pop-up shops and fittings for patrons where they could be measured and order directly from the companies.
On the ground floor at one end was a 10,000-square-foot working exhibit sponsored by the United Shoe Machinery Co.; it served as a functioning factory and educated visitors on every step in the manufacture of leather shoes, from assembling materials to the finishing shine.
Balconies on the building’s upper level overlooked the displays on the ground floor and housed retailer displays showing styles in demand in other parts of the country, organized by state. A promenade on the roof of the building encircled the entirety of the structure and offered views of landmark buildings in Cambridge and Boston, as well as a front-row seat to the booming industrial development along the Charles River and nearby Kendall Square.
The world’s first Shoe & Leather Exposition was held the entire month of July 1909, and an estimated 30,000 visitors attended the opening night. Attendance dwindled due to the closing of the Harvard Bridge for repairs, coupled with the problem of there being limited places to stay in Cambridge, and fair organizers were more than $150,000 in debt by the end of the month. They failed to recruit other industries for trade shows, and the building’s future was uncertain. The group feared bankruptcy and demolition of the building, but were saved when Frederic Fisk – who initially owned the land – and his business partner William S. Youngman bought the complex for redevelopment.
The J. Frank Cutter Automobile Co. leased half of the building. Cutter had been in the carriage and automobile business for about 25 years, and his company was one of the most active builders of limousines and landaulet car bodies (in which the rear passengers can lower their roof like a convertible) as well as automobile tops and slip covers. The other half of the building was occupied by the Velie Motor Vehicle Co.’s Boston factory branch.
The building, with its large central dome, suffered from deferred maintenance and seemed small and inadequate compared with the Great Dome at the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus next door. The Shoe & Leather exposition building was demolished in phases beginning in the 1920s before the site was cleared completely in 1948 for the Eastgate Apartments at 100 Memorial Drive.
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