MIT’s move from Boston to Cambridge is shown with help from many maps from

I love how old maps lead you to stories you never knew about. In this post, I mainly wanted to look at where MIT was in Boston, and then look at how the campus grew in Cambridge. I graduated from MIT in 1980, and have been involved with the Institute since then. That’s 37 years. And yet, I never heard the amazing story about how MIT was able to build its campus starting in 1912 when a wealthy industrialist wrote a single $2 million check to pay for all of the main campus buildings.

The man insisted on total anonymity. He would be referred to only as “Mr. Smith.”

This is the brief story of MIT’s founding in 1861 up to its move to Cambridge in 1916.

Boston Bromley Atlases, 1908 vs 1938. MIT shared a block of the new Back Bay with the Boston Society of Natural History. Shift-click here to view the maps for yourself.

MIT’s original Back Bay building was built in 1866.

The building was named for MIT’s founder, William Barton Rodgers. Rogers was a professor from Virginia who moved to Massachusetts to bring his idea of practical scientific education to fruition. He tirelessly petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to establish the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On April 10, 1861, the Legislature complied, just two days before the Civil War.

The original Walker Building is shown here to the left of the Rogers Buildings. Both buildings were torn down in 1939. The building is named for William J. Walker, whose gift of $60,000 in April of 1863, put MIT over the top of the $100,000 fundraising goal that had set by the Massachusetts State Legislature. MIT was only weeks away from losing its charter, which had already been granted one fundraising extension.

Natural History Society Building (right) which still stands and is now the Restoration Hardware showroom.

That the two MIT buildings shared a single block with the Boston Society of Natural History was no coincidence. The entire block was provided to the institutions by the Legislature. MIT went on to become part of Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which provided for the sale or use of 30,000 acres of federal land for each congressional district of a state.

Ultimately, over 17.4 million acres of public land was distributed through the Morrill Act of 1862 — generating nearly $8 million to establish land-grant institutions. This was a lot less of a land giveaway than the Homestead Act (288 million acres) or the several railroad acts (about 143 million). But like these other policies, it had an enduring impact on the nation’s landscape, and the lives of its citizens. From Back Story — a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

By 1905, MIT had many buildings in Boston. But they were much too small for the expanding Institute. MIT’s Lowell Electrical Engineering Lab was located where the John Hancock Tower is today.

In 1912, MIT bought 46 acres of land in Cambridge. The land had been filled in a project meant to create a Back Bay style neighborhood on the other bank of the Charles. This effort ended in bankruptcy for the developer. MIT paid $775,000 for the land, or $17,000 per acre. (This is $400,000 per acre today). The purchase was funded by donations from the duPont family alumni.

MIT President Maclaurin had originally believed that MIT could sell its Boston campus and buildings to pay for new construction in Cambridge. It turned out, however, that MIT’s status as one of the original Land Grant Universities meant that the land could not be sold. While he had arranged a $1 million grant from the Massachusetts Commonwealth, he was way behind in fundraising as construction began in 1912.

1881 map over on an aerial photo shows the extent of original land. Shift-click here to try it yourself.

The Cambridge side of the Charles River was tidal, similar to the Back Bay before being filled. The Grand Junction Railroad ran through the site, as it does today.

1903 and 1916 maps are compared. Shift-click here to see the changes for yourself.

This 1903 map shows the idea of the Esplanade and the broad streets, each named for prominent universities. Only a few buildings have been built on the new land, including the State Armory, and the Riverbank Court Hotel, which became the original Ashdown House graduate student dorm.

This barren land became MIT’s main campus. You can see the Esplanade already in place on the far right. Industrial buildings on the original land surround the fill site.

The new MIT Campus.
George Eastman at his desk in 1916
Eastman Kodak’s Factory and Main Office in Rochester. I like to imagine that George Eastman was behind one of these windows when he and Maclaurin met to discuss MIT’s new campus.

When MIT’s president Maclaurin visited this man in his offices, the man asked him how much money he need to complete the project. $2 million was the response. The man, George Eastman, of Eastman Kodak, wrote the $2 million check, and added $500K more to finish the buildings. He insisted on being referred to as “Mr. Smith.” In 1916, MIT opened the new buildings and could only celebrate an unknown person named Mr. Smith who made it all possible. Only three people knew his real identity — Maclaurin, his wife, and his secretary. Finally, in 1920, just days before Maclaurin died, it became known that the founder of Eastman Kodak Company had been the benefactor of an entire campus. By the time Eastman’s death, he had donated $20 million to MIT. This is almost $500M in 2017 dollars.

I find it amazing that one person could make such a big impact on an institution like MIT. And that I could have been involved for 37 years and never knew this interesting story.


Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, edited by David Kaiser

A Brief History of MIT’s Land Acquisition Policies

William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT

A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT