The History of The Harvard Square Kiosk

Harvard Square KioskHarvard Square Kiosk circa 1955. Photos courtesy of City of Cambridge, unless stated otherwise.

It’s been the head house for the Red Line, and Cambridge’s source of publications from around the world. It’s had its roof taken off and stashed away, and the whole structure picked up and turned to face Massachusetts Avenue. The Harvard Square kiosk is a national historic landmark and (with apologies to its namesake university) the most iconic structure in Harvard Square.

While it may look a little forlorn since Out of Town News, which occupied it since the 1980s, closed last October, the kiosk is actually poised for the next act in its 93-year history, says Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

“We at the association always had this sort of connection to the little kiosk,” says Jillson. “We started lobbying the city in January of 2012 to restore it.”

Truth be told, the HSBA’s lobbying started long before that: In 1919, when the association’s members approached the state legislature about replacing the then seven-year-old Red Line head house on Harvard Square.

Harvard Square in 1890, looking east.

Photos at the Cambridge Historical Commission show the original head house to be a substantial oval building of brick and stone with high, narrow windows. Those windows didn’t let in much light, says Jillson, and were too far off the floor for people to see out of as they exited onto the street.

“As streetcars would race by the building, association members were afraid people would get hurt,” she says. “Our board meeting notes back to 1919 talk about the association members lobbying the state legislature to take that building down. It took them until 1927, when the little kiosk went up.”

The new head house, more in proportion to the square, served as the Red Line access for more than half a century, until the current entrance was built in the 1980s. During that project, Jillson says, the distinctive roof was taken off the kiosk and stored up in Alewife, and the building itself was picked up and turned 90 degrees. All the plaza bricks around it were taken up, numbered, and stored until the work was complete, then put back in their places.

That’s when Sheldon Cohen moved Out of Town News from its neighboring stand on the square into the kiosk. According to Mo Logman’s book, “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History since 1950,” that’s the point at which the kiosk became a focal point of the square—especially neighboring Harvard University’s international student body, as it was the only place to pick up newspapers and magazines from far-flung places. 

Harvard Square Kiosk
About 1912.

The kiosk has also served as a public arts venue. Back in 1977, Peter Payack—the first poet populist of Cambridge—struck up an arrangement with Cohen to have poetry displayed on the kiosk’s electronic message board, a project that continued for about five years.

“We had 10 different poems by 10 different writers, and they could be contemporary poets, school kids, ancient Greek fragments,” recalls Payack.

In June of that year he held an event at the kiosk with the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School jazz band playing on the roof while poetry scrolled by on the message board. It drew a big crowd, he says.

“What I tried was to get poetry off the page and put it in public arenas where people could see it,” says Payack.

June 1977. Photo by Peter Payack.

When Cohen decided to retire in 1994, he sold the Out of Town News operation to Hudson News, which continued to operate the newsstand until it decided to throw in the towel a couple of decades later.

“It was around 2008 when Hudson News handed the keys over the city and said, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore,’” said Jillson. “That’s when all hell sort of broke loose. It wasn’t the city so much as the denizens of Harvard Square who were concerned there would be no more Out of Town News. The city very wisely said it would continue as a newsstand until it could figure out the next steps.”

Those steps will include an $8.3 million restoration of the kiosk and bringing the brick plaza into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, says Jillson. Until that gets underway in April, CultureHouse will be operating a pop-up exhibition honoring “the history of kiosk as a space for gathering, building community, and connecting across boundaries.” It is open to the public from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Sundays.

The restoration project comes after a two-year study by the city’s Harvard Square Kiosk and Plaza Working Group to determine what was actually feasible for the location.

Harvard Square Kiosk
West elevation 2016, as remodeled in 1983.

“The top of the tunnel is just barely under those bricks, so the amount of real care and thought required to take care of everything, when you think about what’s going on under that ground—you just need to be very careful,” she says.

When the work is completed in 2021, there will also be a new tenant in the kiosk … but not a newsstand. After two years of meetings and public input, the working group came up with a vision of the kiosk as “a flexible space accommodating permanent and temporary community uses” including a permanent visitor information center with historical displays, and temporary uses of the interior “including informal public seating for gatherings.”

Theodora Skeadas, executive director of Cambridge Local First, says the kiosk signifies a lot for Cantabridgians emerging from the Harvard Square T station: “warmth, invitation, and recognition of the city’s and the square’s international population and footprint.”

For her part, she’d like to see continued use of the kiosk to highlight important community issues such as housing and sustainability, as a place to engage visitors to the square and shine spotlights on hyperlocal assets and issues.

Harvard Square Kiosk
Schematic redesign proposal, Galante Architecture Studio 2016.

“Ideally, the kiosk could be made into a permanent community space, one that elevates local issues and resources, and continues to empower Harvard Square, and Cambridge, residents,” Skeadas says.

For Jillson, who is not only an advocate for the square but grew up in the neighborhood, the impending renovation of the kiosk is personally gratifying. 

“I think it’s the only structure in the square that has the name Harvard Square on it,” she notes. “For those of us who grew up in the area like I did, we all have some sort of connection to it. For me as somebody who was here in the ‘80s and the ‘90s and we were battling this issue that Cambridge had, which was rent control, I and many members of my cohort would run to Out of Town News at midnight on Wednesday because the Cambridge Chronicle was available, because we didn’t want to wait until the morning to find out what it was reporting. 

“As a resident of the city, that’s my memory of the kiosk,” says Jillson. “No matter what goes there, the structure cannot be changed because it is on the National Register. It will be there, hopefully in perpetuity like many of the Harvard buildings, because it is the iconic symbol of the square.”

This story appears in the Jan/Feb print issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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