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Art review

Remembering a moving day for MIT in 1916

A 1912 composite panorama of the 46-acre site in Cambridge for MIT’s new campus.
A 1912 composite panorama of the 46-acre site in Cambridge for MIT’s new campus.(photos/MIT Museum)

CAMBRIDGE — The dateline matters. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most prestigious of Cambridge institutions, wasn’t always in Cambridge. MIT used to be in Boston. Hub location is why that other Cambridge school, you know, the one farther up Massachusetts Avenue, doesn’t strictly qualify as a Cambridge institution. Harvard bestows its Harvard-ness on Boston, too, thanks to the whereabouts of its athletic facilities, Allston campus, and business, medical, dental, and public health schools.

Founded in 1861, MIT spent its first 55 years in and around Copley Square. The school was commonly referred to as Boston Tech. That changed in 1916, when MIT crossed the Harvard Bridge and relocated to 46 acres between Kendall and Central squares. The land cost $775,000. You’d have a hard time buying a Cambridge condo for that much today. Even adjusted for inflation, $18.5 million, the price was a bargain.

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In observance of the 100th anniversary of the move, the MIT Museum is showing “Imagining New Technology: Building MIT in Cambridge.” It runs through Sept. 6.

A drawing for the Great Dome.
A drawing for the Great Dome.(MIT Department of Facilities, courtesy MIT Museum)

The show consists of maps, architectural drawings, photographs, correspondence, a model, and such ephemera as tickets and programs from the dedication ceremony. The items make up a very MIT blend of the majestic, even magnificent (the renderings of the new Beaux Arts campus, the sense of enlightened order in the planning), with the cheerfully goofy. How goofy? The dedication featured the Bucentaur, a vessel modeled on the Venetian doge’s barge, for crossing the Charles. Its decorations included mermaids, cupids, and a T-square.

Ceremony and innovation joined forces for a celebratory banquet at Symphony Hall linked to 34 other sites by that still relatively newfangled invention the telephone. Think of it as Skype without pictures, with listeners throughout the land able to hear congratulatory messages offered by the likes of Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Orville Wright.

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“Imagining New Technology” concludes with a tribute to the neighborhood MIT moved to. Display cases include examples of products manufactured in and around Kendall Square back when it was an industrial center. Some of the names are familiar: Necco Wafers, Fairy Soap, a Polaroid SX-70 camera. Some ought to be, like Whittemore’s Gilt Edge Self Shining Shoe Polish. Forget all the high tech and bioscientific wonders emerging from Kendall Square these days. Self-shining shoe polish: Now that’s a real miracle of science.

IMAGINING NEW TECHNOLOGY: Building MIT in Cambridge

MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Sept. 6, 617-253-5927, web.mit.edu/museum


Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.