In the early 1900s, MIT was quickly outgrowing its Back Bay campus. The leaders of the Institute wanted to make a new interconnected technology complex but there wasn’t any room to do that in the Back Bay. In search of a new location, they contemplated many options, including an island in the Charles River. “We don’t need all the space we have in the Charles, so why not put an island in the middle of it,” says Karl Haglund PhD ’97, author of Inventing the Charles River.
At the time, the land in Cambridge was undeveloped, unappealing, and industrial. “So it made some sense from a Bostonian perspective to try to extend the Boston sort of consciousness out in the water,” says MIT Professor Mark Jarzombek PhD ’86.
One argument for the island was that it could house MIT’s campus and extend Boston’s residential Back Bay area and create new, valuable real estate. The proposals were modeled after European cities with islands such as the Ile de Cite in Paris. The first two proposals were submitted by landscape architect Arthur Schurcliff 1894 and the third proposal was submitted by Ralph Adams Cram, who would later become the head of the MIT architecture department. The set of 1911 proposals, submitted by Robert Bellows, included one island sketch with a space for MIT’s new campus.
Finally, in 1913 MIT bought the Cambridge land and that put an end to the island proposals.
As it turns out, the idea of islands in the Charles was only possible because of MIT’s involvement in the development of the Charles River Basin and the damming of the Charles River. Before the dam, the river was tidal. Because of the damage that the fluctuating water levels caused to the foundation of buildings in the Back Bay and the unpleasant smell emanating from the exposed mud flats at low tide, a dam was built.
James Storrow, a Harvard graduate, spearheaded the campaign to build a dam that would stabilize the water level and two MIT alumni were key in the development. John Ripley Freeman 1876, a civil engineer who would later propose a plan for MIT’s new campus, conducted what is considered the first environmental impact report on the feasibility of damming the Charles River. His report led to the approval of the dam’s construction and Guy Lowell 1894 was the landscape architect of the dam itself. With the now-stable water level in the Charles River Basin, the idea of creating a manmade island was a legitimate possibility.
Watch this video to hear more about the island in the Charles.