It has been said, by visitors and the more frequent Square characters, that part of the beauty of Harvard Square, and Cambridge at large, is it’s quirky, unrestrained, original atmosphere. Musicians, artists, and puppeteers, just to name a few, have all found inspiration in the atypical nature of the Square. There exists here a feeling that cannot be recreated, though it was once captured and preserved for the future use of all of us lucky enough to be able to see it ever since.

Harvard Square first became “cool” in 1912 when the subway made its way to Cambridge. In truth, the Square was probably “cool” before this, but the subway made it clear—people wanted to get the Square. They did so in droves and they continued for decades, until much like the rest of Boston, the lines and streets became overcrowded.

The 1970s were an era of population growth during economic hardship. As Massachusetts elected officials were discussing plans for new highway construction, people began to voice their opposition to the idea. Anti-highway people scored a major victory when federal highway funds were re-appropriated to “mass transportation.” This paved the way for a major transportation project which became known as the Red Line Extension. Around the same time, in 1977, the Secretary of Transportation initiated a policy to spend federal funds for art. These two projects came together and for the first time in the United States public art projects were integrated into the mass transportation system.

Arts on the Line was not the first art initiative for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). The Green Line had displayed large photo murals in several subway terminals previously. This new project, however, would be the first to put contemporary works into the subways. The Cambridge Arts Council, along with the MBTA wrote grants for implementing their program. The project was ultimately funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, totaling one-half of one percent of the Red Line Extension budget, or in other words, $695,000.

The initial plan was for twenty contemporary works to adorn the new stations built at Harvard Square, Porter Square, Davis Square, and Alewife station. The works, and the project as a whole, were so well received that the program was expanded to twelve more stations in the following years. In the 1980s the Orange Line, along with the non-profit organization UrbanArts, implemented a similar program in many of their stations. The success of the Arts On The Line project led to public art to now be found in the subway systems in New York, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Portland, Atlanta, and Miami with the Red Line as their model.

Art in a public space presented a unique challenge for the Cambridge Arts Council and those who were part of the selection committees. It is not a clean, constant, or ideal environment. Viewers may only be glimpsing the works as they rush by on their way to and from work. Not all contractors understood the concept of integrating art with their new buildings, and not all artists wanted to display their work in such an atypical setting. Ultimately, the selection committees chose a broad range of works, with station receiving its own committee. 

In Harvard Square, four works were selected which are on display both inside and outside the newly constructed station. The first to be completed was Ann Norton’s Gateway to Knowledge, completed in 1983. Comprised of handmade brick, the piece is a truncated obelisk, with two pillars representing knowledge and education, separated by a narrow slot. The entire piece, though massive at more than 20 feet tall, is able to convey mobility with one pillar place slightly in front of the other.

Joyce Kozloff’s New England Decorative Art is a mural wall made up of hundreds of one-foot square tiles. The imagery is meant to be colorful and exciting with inspiration drawn from early New England gravestones. Various motifs have been placed together to create and complicated, elaborate, and breathtaking scene that lasts for 83 feet, the length of a whole wall.

Also inside is Gyorgy Kepes’ Blue Sky on the Red Line. It is a stained glass wall that greets travelers from above as the enter the main lobby of the station. It serves as a substitute sky and it undulates down the wall and passed on its opposite side by arriving and departing buses. The piece brings light, luminosity, and beauty to the subterranean space.

Finally, back outside in the Square is Omphalos by Dimitri Hadzi. A 21-foot tall sculpture made of various colors of granite is a collection of posts holding up numerous shapes and angles. The granite shifts from a rough-hewn surface, to hand-polished, to flame-polished rock. The colors alternate from gray to black to pink and to red. It is vibrant and changing. It is a collection of many different disparate entities that all work together. It is beautiful, unique, and monumental. It is another example of the great success and beauty of the Arts On The Line initiative. It is the vitality individuality of its surroundings. It is elegant. It is unpredictable. It is Harvard Square.

As prepared by:
Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director Cambridge Historical Society.
Katie MacDonald, Intern Cambridge Historical Society.