Davenport Car Works, 700 Main Street

April 1, 2013 | By Maggie O’Toole

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Davenport Car Works, 700 Main Street

The Davenport Car Works contains the oldest industrial structure in Cambridge, and the complex as a whole illustrates the evolution of Cambridge’s industrial economy, from heavy manufacturing to photographic imaging to biotechnology.

Founded in 1832 as a manufacturer of wagons and carriages in Central Square, the Davenport Car Works was a pioneer in developing and building railroad passenger cars. Charles Davenport designed and built the first “American style” railroad car, with a central aisle between the seats, and is said to have invented the reversible coach seat. The firm moved into an existing three-story brick building at Main and Osborn streets in 1842 and soon built six one-story wooden workshops at the east side of the present parking lot. In 1848, Davenport added the two two-story brick wings behind the front building. The east wing was used as an assembly plant and machine shop; still visible are the arched openings, now bricked in, shown in an early view. Many window and door openings have lintels made of railroad rails. The Davenport Works produced passenger and freight cars (and even a few steam locomotives) for railroads throughout the U.S. until 1855. 

                                        Davenport Car Works in 1854 (H. F.  Walling)

The complex was then acquired by Allen & Endicott, an iron foundry, which rented out space to other manufacturers; their tenants included the J. J. Walworth & Company, makers of steam-heating apparatus. Daniel Stillson, a mechanic at Walworth’s Cambridge plant, invented the wrench that bears his name in 1869, and the firm manufactured these tools long after the patent expired. On October 9, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, at the Walworth offices in Boston, and Thomas A. Watson, at the Cambridgeport factory, engaged in the first reciprocal telephone conversation between two distant points.

In 1882, Allen & Endicott demolished the front building and replaced it with the existing three-story brick structure (known as the headhouse) and later further extended the west wing to Albany Street. This includes a wood frame second floor sheathed in fireproof slate, which is unique in Cambridge.

In 1927, the complex was purchased by the Kaplan Furniture Company, which had been founded in 1907 by Isaac Kaplan. The company specialized in Federal-style reproduction furniture; its name may still be seen on the Osborn St. façade.

Kaplan Furniture Catalogue. C. M. Sullivan Collection, Cambridge Historical Commission

Kaplan also rented space to tenants, including a small technology start-up called the Polaroid Corporation.

Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, opened a laboratory on the second floor of the old headhouse where he worked on instant photography, heat-seeking missiles, the U-2 reconnaissance plane, and many other projects. Land maintained his personal lab here until his retirement in 1982. By 1960 Polaroid occupied the entire complex, using it for the manufacture of film and cameras and later for research. Polaroid bought the property in 1988, and sold it a decade later to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT undertook a multi-year renovation and expansion project to convert the buildings to a biotech research facility. The work included pointing and repairing masonry, window replacement, and floor restructuring, as well as construction of a striking 80,000 square foot contemporary addition. The project, which was completed in October 2002, received a Preservation Award in 2003.