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Historic Cambridge Church Moved 80 Feet For Lesley Arts Center

The former North Prospect Congregational Church (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The former North Prospect Congregational Church (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — One of Cambridge’s seven surviving Civil War-era churches made a move Thursday — 80 feet to the south, in Porter Square. The shift kicks off construction of Lesley University’s new $46 million arts center. For some it promises to transform the neighborhood, but others say the historic move is heartbreaking.

News helicopters hovered over the heads of curious people gathered in the cold Thursday to watch a slow-moving spectacle: the former North Prospect Congregational Church building inching across a plot of dirt.

“We can’t figure out why they’re moving it,” said Sy Danberg, who lives a few blocks from Porter Square, as he held a steaming mug of coffee in his hands. “I mean they’re only moving it, what, 25 feet? It seems like an awful lot of effort to move a building not very far.”

It actually traveled 80 feet total, at a rate of four feet an hour. Architects predicted it would take the hydraulic system anywhere between two to four hours to slide the historic structure on beam rollers to its new foundation.

“It’s a beautiful old church,” Lesley University President Joseph Moore said while watching the peeling white structure make its journey. “And what’s going to be here as the church moves is the restored mid-19th-century historic church, and next to it will be a contemporary new four-story building with art studios, galleries and classrooms.”

Moore explained that the rehabbed Greek Revival building will house design studios and an art library that will be open to the public. The 188-ton church building is part of a new 93,000-square-foot complex the university is building to house its school of arts and design.

A view from a nearby roof shows the stilts the church was positioned on, and the church in its new location. (Courtesy)

A view from a nearby roof shows the stilts the church was positioned on, and the church in its new location. (Courtesy)

This project has been in the works for eight years. The Cambridge architecture film Bruner/Cott is behind the design. Principal-in-charge Simeon Bruner said this isn’t the first time the 1845 building has moved. In 1867 a team of horses hauled the church a mile up Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard Square. It took 21 days.

“It was jacked up,” Bruner explained, “and a new story was added underneath it.”

Soon the old church will be returned to its original elevation.

Reconciling the church’s historic architecture with a new, state-of-the-art design hasn’t been easy, Bruner said. But he and many others really wanted to repurpose the church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Lesley purchased the property in 2006.

“It’s been a very interesting challenge balancing the historicity of the church,” Bruner started, but then was interrupted by a man offering congratulations. “That’s one of our neighbors who’s at times objected — and at times has been accepting,” the architect said.

The city and area residents see the new center as a keystone in transforming Porter Square into a vibrant arts district.

“And I think we tried to design it in a way that feeds the commercial life of Mass Ave,” Lesley’s Moore said, adding that planners also wanted to limit the impact on neighbors to the east and west. “It’s very important to us because of our life in this neighborhood.”

“We were supportive of it because this thing was sitting here fallow. It was basically empty,” said neighborhood resident Ron Axelrod. He said the arts center promises to be a major improvement. Axelrod, who’s also an architect, is part of the neighborhood committee put together by the city of Cambridge to collaborate on the new construction.

But then there are the abutters. Some started a “Leave the church where it is, as it is” button campaign. And lawsuits were filed, but didn’t prevail.

Emma Lang said the church's move is emotional. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Emma Lang said the church’s move is emotional. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Emma Lang grew up behind the church and still lives there. It’s been emotional, Lang admits, because she says her dad has lived behind the church since 1979. That’s why Thursday’s move was rough. She said:

It is true that there is support in the neighborhood, but it’s also been very difficult for us. When you grow up somewhere, you go off to school, and you hear your childhood home is being destroyed, it’s very upsetting. And it’s very sad for me and the children who also grew up in the neighborhood I’m still friends with. We all grew up here, we went to Rindge and Latin, we’re local Cambridge townies, and it’s very hard to have one of the universities come and trample over that. We’ve grown up with it but it doesn’t get better, it doesn’t get easier.

But it’s reality, Lang acknowledges.

Lesley’s Lunder Arts Center is slated for completion next year. The North Prospect Church will be on the move again Friday or Monday — this time 14 feet closer to Mass Ave.

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