No landmarking study for Harvard Square’s Pit, where history of use upstages the architecture
The celebrated area surrounding the Harvard Square subway station known as The Pit will not become a historical landmark, the Historical Commission decided last week.
Members of the commission acknowledged the value of preserving the Pit’s historical significance and punk culture – as argued in a petition for a landmarking study signed by 38 residents – but ultimately voted Thursday that plans are too far along to stop compared with the site’s architectural significance.
While construction has not started on reconstruction for a brick plaza that includes The Pit and nearby former Out of Town News kiosk, materials are already being bought and other work is underway behind the scenes, city engineer Kathy Watkins said. She did, however, show sympathy for the landmarking petition and offered suggestions for compromise.
“We’re in the process of hiring an operator and one of the goals of that project, in terms of activating the kiosk building, was to have various and changing exhibits,” Watkins said. “Is there a way to celebrate the history [in an exhibit]? There could be an opportunity to do that while also continuing with the project.”
Watkins said she would welcome a conversation with Ben Simon, the author of the petition, to discuss the most effective ways to respect the area’s history.
The plaza got its design as the MBTA red line was extended to Alewife in the late 1970s and into the mid-1980s. The Pit was proposed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1978 and finished in 1985 or 1986. “As a point for buses and the subway, it was easily accessible to people both from metropolitan Boston and from further out. The Pit was particularly popular with teenagers and early and young adults in their 20s, although it was used by people of all ages,” city preservation planner Sarah Burks said.
Simon, in his presentation to the commission, said one of the reasons behind his proposal was that he felt the wishes of the community – the punk and music communities of the city especially – were overlooked when deciding what would happen to The Pit.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that this was a really sufficient community process. The working group that went into deciding one of the developments wasn’t elected by the community, it was appointed from the top down,” Simon said. “They published a final report, an 84-page document, and the word ’punk’ did not appear once in 84 pages. I think that’s remarkable, and I think it speaks to the fact that this working group either was unaware of the important punk rock history of this space or they willfully ignored it. Either way, this is the history that is valuable to a lot of people, even if it isn’t to the people that were put on this working group.”
The Pit redesign process began in June 2015 with a city-organized placemaking session in Harvard Square. In 2017, the city hired consultants to brainstorm ideas, followed by the creation of a city manager-appointed working group the same year that met publicly 11 times. In October of 2018, the City Council saw plans, followed by two Historical Commission hearings in 2019 to review designs.
Simon said the physical aspects of The Pit, including its use as a kind of amphitheater, were important qualities that should be kept even as reconstruction guarantees access for all in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But commissioner Gavin Kleespies, a self-proclaimed Pit veteran and supporter of maintaining its culture, said The Pit’s physical form has already changed over time. Benches at the base of the slope from the MBTA headhouse were not there at The Pit’s construction in the 1980s, while a then-integral part of Pit culture – the ability to make calls via a wall of phone banks – eventually became obsolete and was removed, he said.
“Benjamin really makes a very good point that this history needs to be documented and preserved in some way. There needs to be stories about this,” Kleespies said. “I don’t know that the physical space of The Pit is exactly the space that needs to be saved for it … we need to think about different ways to approach this.”
For now, construction as planned will continue, but the culture of the Pit may still be safe – if not through its physical structure, then with a community determined not to let its culture be forgotten.