Site History

According to the "Northwest Cambridge Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge," Cambridge Historical Commission, 1977, northwest Cambridge was opened to development with the building of the railroad in the 1840s. The area had abundant clay which had been used to make bricks since colonial times, but by the mid-19th century manufactured brick was in demand for the rapidly growing cities of New England. Commercial development of the clay lands which extended from Vassal Lane and Walden Street to Rindge Avenue and Alewife Brook was begun. Soon an industrial complex of brickyards, drying kilns and clay pits occurred throughout the area. The CCH site is located on the northeastern fringe of the former brick manufacturing complex.

Meanwhile, the stockyards flourished in the Porter Square area, north of the tracks on what is now Cogswell Avenue. The area was also known for its bars and unsavory characters. A history reports: "There was rum selling and drinking, fast driving and street racing on the Lord's Day. Several times during the week the race track just west of the cattle yards drew huge crowds of noisy visitors." The Porter's Hotel in that area gave its name to a famous cut of beef!

The man principally responsible for the establishment of the brick industry in Cambridge was Nathaniel J. Wyeth, who purchased clay lands in 1844 and opened them up for development. In 1847, Wyeth opened his own brickyard. Thereafter, the brick industry in Cambridge expanded or contracted in response to changes in the political or economic climate. The Civil War caused a cycle of expansion and in the decade which followed it, much of the workable clay land in the area was mined. The Panic of 1873 resulted in curtailed brickmaking operations at several yards and brought a change of ownership or bankruptcy to others; only the large commercial brickyards along the railroad survived. Economic recovery in the early 1889s brought the last period of expansion of the industry. In the decade that followed even marginal land on the periphery of the brickyards was mined. The Panic of 1893 signaled the end of brickmaking in North Cambridge, and within a decade all but two of the brick yards had closed.

As a result of consolidation and abandonment, by World War I the North Cambridge brick industry had retreated to the clay land along Sherman Street. On the west side were the extensive operations of the New England Brick Company. Its clay beds, excavated to a depth of 80 feet, were nearly exhausted by World War II; operations at those yards were suddenly ended in 1952 when a landslide buried the remaining steam shovel. On the east side of Sherman Street clay excavation continued at the Hews Pottery brick yard until approximately 1970, when the pits were filled after 125 years of operation. The Hews factory building occupied a portion of the Richdale site.

Most of the clay pits were simply filled after being exhausted. The pits owned by the New England Brick Company on Sherman Street were sold to the City of Cambridge for a refuse dump in 1951; the City continued to use that site until the pits were completely filled in 1971. After being filled, the former clay pits were put to a variety of uses, primarily for public housing. Other uses were for the Tobin Elementary School on Vassal Lane and the Walden Square Apartments, which were built in 1971. A municipal incinerator was located on the site of the old municipal dump, approximately 2000 feet west of the Richdale Condominiums. The old maps and the presence of clay close to the surface indicate that the Cambridge Cohousing site was never mined for clay and, thus, was never used for dumping.

Although the railroad tracks were laid in the 1840s, the CCH site was still undeveloped in 1854. In 1869 Horace Hews, a Weston potter and early associate of Nathanial Wyeth, bought a lot at 205 Richdale Avenue (then called Crescent Avenue) for his pottery. Horace Hews was a descendant of Abraham Hews who established the region's first potter manufacturing plant in Weston in 1765. Hews built a three and a half story factory on the Richdale site in 1870; the following year A.H. Hews & Co. moved there from Weston. It was an excellent location, adjacent to the clay pits of the New England Brick Company and to the Fitchburg Railroad. Several additions to the factory were constructed in 1888. Part of the Hews factory was destroyed by fire near the end of 1891; shortly thereafter it was rebuilt, four stories high and with a tall smokestack. A.H. Hews was now the largest manufacturer of pottery in the world; it produced as many as seven million flower pots a years, as well as large numbers of jardinieres, cuspidors and umbrella stands.

In 1897 A.H. Hews & Co. built a stable and carriage house at the intersection of Richdale Avenue and Raymond Street, across from the pottery factory. This curved brick structure with two arched doors for carriages, is the only remaining part of the Hews pottery works on Richdale Avenue. The remainder of the Hews complex on the CCH site was demolished in 1934.

On the east end of the site a lumber company was operated by the Sewall Brothers, builders and carpenters. In 1886 and 1887 the brothers built three houses adjacent to their lumber yard. The three houses are still in existence at 143, 147-149 and 153-155 Richdale Avenue. John Sewall & Co. built an 18 foot structure for storage in 1889. The lumber yard moved between 1894 and 1903 and the structures associated with it were demolished. The former Sewall property passed to the Fresh Pond Ice Company. It is not clear whether the company ever occupied the site.

In 1893, part of the east end of the property was sold again to the Frank H. Davis Company, a manufacturer of paper mill machinery. The company erected a building in 1897 and a two-story machine shop in 1905 and 1909. By 1910, Jennie P. Davis owned all of the east end of the property and also another site at 121 and 143 Richdale where, in 1916 the Frank H. Davis Company constructed a concrete-block factory and an overhead rail pulley. Sometime after 1930 the Frank H. Davis Company also acquired the properties on both sides of Richdale Avenue previously owned by the A.H. Hews & Co. pottery works. These properties were used for storage of machinery. By 1962 the parcels between 155 and 175 Richdale and 129 and 139 Richdale were being used as junk iron yards.

The Frank H. Davis Company focused on rebuilding of paper machinery for mills in New England. The company operated a large machine shop capable of milling rollers and drums up to 30 feet long. To accommodate the stock, the company used several large gantry cranes bought from an East Boston shipyard in 1956. The company ceased to operate in 1986. Shortly thereafter the buildings were demolished and the land was cleared.

The parcels at 129-139 and 157-205 were purchased in 1987 by the 179 Richdale Realty Trust which built condominiums at 205 Richdale. In 1996 the balance of the property on the north side of Richdale was bought by the Cambridge Cohousing LLP for construction of its community!

When the foundations for Cambridge Cohousing were dug, many broken bricks found, a substantial quantity of the excavated clay was saved and stored in plastic bags in the East End workshop. The community held several sessions in which members of the community used this clay to produce tiles depicting their impressions of their new home. These tiles have been arranged into a mural which, at this writing is about to be installed at the entrance to the Common House.

- by Rowena Conkling