Monday, July 22, 2024

The structures around 358 Huron Ave., Cambridge, circa 1967. (Photo: Patricia Hollander, courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission)

How do you uncover the story of a house? Of a block? Of a neighborhood? History Cambridge board member Doug Brown has pondered these questions and undertaken substantial research into his own home and its Huron Village neighborhood. On Sept. 28, Brown, his wife Dee Elms, and their family will host a “Hidden Huron Village” fundraiser for History Cambridge at their Standish Street home exploring the past of the neighborhood and the many ways residents can uncover similar information.

History Cambridge believes every person is an expert in their own Cambridge history. To that end, we seek to empower those who live and work in the city to gain access to local archival information using the many resources available for researching properties, public spaces and neighborhoods. At this event, Brown will share the ways in which he has been able to uncover a wealth of information about his home, Standish Street and the Huron Village neighborhood.

The initial settlement of what is now known as Huron Village consisted of homesteads ranging from a quarter of an acre to 8 acres along Garden and Brattle streets as far as Sparks Street, which was the boundary of Watertown until 1757. Watertown, in contrast to Cambridge, was founded as an agricultural settlement, and west of Sparks Street the land was divided into long, narrow tracts that gave each farmer portions of salt marsh, meadow, south-facing pasture, north-facing slope and freshwater wetland. Beginning about 1758, these farms proved attractive to Boston merchants and West Indian planters looking for rural retreats, and their mansions gave the area its nickname, Tory Row.

After the Revolution most of the Tory estates were sold to patriots who continued the luxurious lifestyles of their predecessors. The construction of a horse-drawn streetcar line called the Cambridge Railroad down Brattle Street in 1856 enhanced the value of the estates by making them more accessible to Boston. Owners began to subdivide their properties, but were not very successful until the 1880s. Even then, only the south-facing slopes found favor with the new homeowners; the back slope pastures stayed empty because of their remoteness and their less favorable setting.

In September 1889 the city unveiled a plan to open the north-slope pastures to suburban development. A new road, Huron Avenue, would run from Concord Avenue to the Watertown Branch of the Fitchburg Railroad near Fresh Pond, incorporating the east end of Vassal Lane and a new cross street between Standish Street and Grozier Road. The landowners along the route agreed to grade the new street and turn it over to the city as a public way.

The development of the back slope was facilitated by the introduction of electric propulsion for streetcars between Harvard Square and Boston in 1889. Early electric cars were fast but extremely noisy and disruptive, and Brattle Street homeowners mobilized their considerable clout to block the conversion of their line. Cambridge aldermen supported the project, but Gov. William E. Russell, a Brattle Street resident, blocked it in 1893. Mayor William A. Bancroft, who later became president of the street railway company, worked out a compromise that involved laying tracks on Mount Auburn Street and Huron Avenue and abandoning the Brattle Street line in 1894. In 1896 the Huron line was extended to Mount Auburn Street by way of Aberdeen Avenue.

The new car line allowed the area to become a classic streetcar suburb. The north slope pastures of the old Lechmere and Lee estates were developed by builders who subdivided large tracts, laid out streets and built large numbers of nearly identical two-family houses for sale to workingmen.

Other builders filled the streets north of Huron with two-family houses and three-deckers until the neighborhood was substantially complete by the Depression. Today, Reservoir Hill remains the social watershed that divides the wealthy Brattle Street neighborhood from the streetcar suburbs reached by the Huron Avenue trolley line.

Using the resources available from the Cambridge Historical Commission, the Cambridge Public Library, History Cambridge and other local organizations, Brown has been able to research the history of this neighborhood and of his family home’s place in it. We hope many residents of Huron Village, as well as other Cambridge neighborhoods, will join us from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept 28 to share their stories and learn more about how they can conduct their own research. Sign up to attend the “Hidden Huron Village” event here, and sign up for our newsletter to be notified of other upcoming local history events.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

History Cambridge is a nonprofit organization. Our activities rely on your financial support. If you value articles like this one, give today.


Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.