No landmark study for Harvard Square’s Pit, where history of use eclipses architecture


The pit in Harvard Square on Wednesday, with a staging area to the right of MBTA headquarters. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The famous area surrounding the Harvard Square subway station known as The Pit will not become a historic landmark, the Historical Commission ruled last week.

Members of the commission recognized the importance of preserving the historical significance and punk culture of the pit – as supported by a petition for a historical study signed by 38 residents – but ultimately voted on Thursday that the plans were too advanced to stop in relation to the architectural importance of the site.

Although construction has not started on the rebuilding of a brick plaza that includes The Pit and the former Out of Town Newsstand nearby, materials are already being procured and other work is underway behind the scenes , said City Engineer Kathy Watkins. She did, however, show sympathy for the historic petition and offered compromise proposals.

“We are in the process of hiring an operator and one of the goals of this project, in terms of activating the kiosk building, was to have diverse and changing exhibits,” Watkins said. “Is there a way to celebrate the history [in an exhibit]? There might be an opportunity to do this while continuing the project.

Harvard Square reinvented, with The Pit eliminated. (Image: Historical Commission)

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 Pit was conceived when the MBTA Red Line was extended to Alewife in the late 1970s and mid-1980s. The Pit was proposed by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1978 and completed in 1985 or 1986. “As a bus and subway point, it was easily accessible to people in metropolitan Boston and beyond. The pit was especially popular with teenagers and young adults in their twenties, although it was used by people of all ages,” said Sarah Burks, city preservation planner.

Simon, in his presentation to the commission, said that one of the reasons for his proposal was that he felt the wishes of the community – the punk and music communities in the city in particular – were being ignored when deciding to what would happen to The Pit.

Harvard Square, seen during construction in 1985. (Image: Historical Commission)

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that it was really enough of a community process. The working group that decided on one of the developments was not elected by the community, it was top-down appointment,” Simon said. “They released a final report, an 84-page document, and the word ‘punk’ didn’t appear once in 84 pages. I think it’s remarkable, and I think it’s a testament to the fact that this task force was either unaware of the important punk rock history of this space or deliberately ignored it. Either way, it’s the story that’s valuable to a lot of people, even if it’s not the people who were put on that task force.

The Pit redesign process began in June 2015 with a city-hosted place-making session in Harvard Square. In 2017, the city hired consultants to brainstorm ideas, followed by the creation of a city manager-appointed task force the same year that met publicly 11 times. In October 2018, the city council saw plans, followed by two Historical Commission hearings in 2019 to review the designs.

Simon said the physical aspects of The Pit, including its use as a kind of amphitheater, were important qualities that should be retained even if the reconstruction guarantees access for all under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But curator Gavin Kleespies, a self-proclaimed Pit veteran and proponent of maintaining his culture, said The Pit’s fitness had already changed over time. The benches at the base of MBTA’s corporate headquarters slope were not there when The Pit was built in the 1980s, when a then integral part of Pit culture – the ability to make calls via a wall of telephone banks – eventually became obsolete and was removed, he said.

“Benjamin is really arguing that this history needs to be documented and preserved somehow. There needs to be stories about it,” Kleespies said. “I don’t know if the physical space of The Pit is exactly the space that needs to be reserved for this…we need to think about different ways to approach this.”

For now, construction as planned will continue, but the culture of the pit can still be safe – if not in its physical structure, then at least with a community determined not to let its culture be forgotten.

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