Frequently Asked Questions

Click on any question below to expand the page and see the answers to the most frequent inquiries regarding Cambridge history and CHC permitting.

  • Where can I download an application to make changes to a designated historic property?

    Follow this link to download an Application for Certificate. Not sure if you need to apply? Call us at the Commission office (617/349-4683) to ask.

  • What's the difference between the Cambridge Historical Commission and the Cambridge Historical Society?

    The Cambridge Historical Commission is a department of the city government, and the History Cambridge is a private non-profit organization located at 159 Brattle Street. The phone number for History Cambridge is 617/547-4252. Or view their web page here.

  • When was Cambridge founded?

    The short answer is that Cambridge was founded in 1630. Here are some other important dates in Cambridge history:

    • December 21, 1630 - Site was chosen for the settlement. (Area south of Harvard Square, near the river).
    • December 28, 1630 - The name "Newtowne" was chosen for the colonial settlement.
    • Spring of 1631 - The streets were laid out in a grid pattern. The English settlers arrived.
    • May 2, 1638 - The name of the town was changed from "Newtowne" to "Cambridge."
    • March 17, 1846 - Cambridge was incorporated as a city.
  • What is the derivation of the name Cambridge?

    In 1638, the General Court and the town agreed to change Newtowne's name to Cambridge. It is generally agreed that this decision was made because many of the men who comprised the court had attended Cambridge University in England and thought that it would be an appropriate name for a college town in New England. In England, Cambridge was named after "the bridge over the River Cam." However, the Charles River had already been named after King Charles I, and the colonists apparently made no effort to rename the river too.

  • What is a resident of Cambridge called, and how do you spell it?

    CANTABRIGIAN (That's right, there's no D in it). Cantabrigia is the Latin name for Cambridge.

  • Which is older: The town of Cambridge or Harvard College?

    Cambridge. The town was founded in 1630, and the college was founded in 1636.

  • What is the oldest remaining house in Cambridge?

    Two houses in Cambridge, the Cooper-Frost-Austin House (21 Linnaean Street) and the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House (159 Brattle Street), were built in the late seventeenth century, altered in the eighteenth century, and have been preserved by historical organizations that make them available to the public for viewing. A recent dendrochronology study conclusively demonstrated that the timbers used to build the Cooper-Frost-Austin house were harvested in 1682. Construction on the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House did not begin until after 1684/85. The houses are named for the primary families that lived there. For more information on the Cooper-Frost-Austin House, contact Historic New England and for more information on the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, contact the History Cambridge.

    cooper frost austin house
    Cooper-Frost-Austin House (21 Linnaean Street). CHC File Photo by Kenneth J. Conant, Jr. for the Cambridge Planning Board, September 1952

    hooper lee nichols house
    Hooper-Lee Nichols House (159 Brattle Street). History Cambridge's Office/Museum. CHC File Photo, April 1979

  • What is Fort Washington, and where is it?

    Fort Washington is located at 101 Waverly Street, between Reardon Street and Talbot Street. The fort was built in 1775 by order of General George Washington. Seen now as grassy embankments, the fort is the only surviving physical remnant of the Revolutionary War in Cambridge. Several small forts, including this three-gun battery, were built to prevent the movement of British troops up the Charles River.

    fort washington image

  • Did George Washington take command of the American Army under the tree known as Washington Elm?

    This popular legend became part of American popular culture as early as the 1830s. The story was made famous during the centennial year of 1876, with the publication of a fictitious "eye-witness" journal, The Diary of Dorothy Dudley. The tree itself was indeed real and stood in the middle of Garden Street at the intersection of Mason Street. In 1923, the diseased and very fragile trunk was accidently pulled over by a city worker. A plaque embedded in the street's pavement marks the original location of the tree. [Note:  The metal plaque has been temporarily removed from the street due to deformation of its shape. Plans to replicate the plaque in a more durable material are in discussions.] 

    Additionally, there is a marker on the Cambridge Common commemorating the elm. Washington did take command of the army in Cambridge on July 3, 1775, but there is no documentation to indicate that the event took place under the elm tree. Washington established his New England headquarters at the Vassal House on Brattle Street (now better known as the Longfellow House), where he resided until April 1776. The myth of Washington and the elm is still widely known today, and the image of the tree remains a symbol of patriotism in Cambridge.

  • What are the symbols on the city seal?

    The current city seal is a revision of the original seal, which was adopted in 1846. The seal contains an image of the Gothic Revival style building, Gore Hall, the former library building at Harvard College, and an image of the Washington Elm, the Cambridge tree made famous by the popular legend of George Washington taking command of the American Army under the tree during the Revolution. The Latin motto, which is often included around the city seal, reads: "Literis Antiquis Novis Institutis Decora." It can be translated as: "Distinguished for Classical Learning and New Institutions." Also written in Latin are the founding and chartering dates for the town and city, which are translated as: "Built in A.D. 1630. Chartered a city in A.D. 1846."

    The original seal of 1846 was designed by Edward Everett, the President of Harvard from 1846-1849. He also composed the Latin motto used on the seal. Everett served as a Congressman and U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, Secretary of State, and ambassador to Great Britain.

    Click here for more information about the current and original city seals.

    city of cambridge seal

  • Do you have the original plans for my house?

    Probably not. Unfortunately, not many original house plans survive for Cambridge homes. Any plans that were submitted to city offices between 1886 (when the first building permits were issued) and the mid-1920s have been lost or destroyed. If you call our office, we will check to see if we have plans in our files or if we know of any for your house. Even if we do not have a full set of plans, we may have a measured drawing of the footprint of your house, made between the 1870s and the 1930s, and we can help you find that.

  • I am interested in genealogy. Do you have records about members of my family who once lived in Cambridge?

    Although the emphasis of the CHC's archival collections is on the architecture of the city, we do have several important resources to check if you are in town doing family history research. Please note that we do not have genealogical researchers available for hire. Please follow this link for a list of resources and links for genealogical research.


  • Where is the Old Burying Ground in Cambridge and how do I find out who is buried there?

    The Old Burying Ground is located just outside of Harvard Square at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Garden Street, between First Parish in Cambridge Church and Christ Church of Cambridge. At the Historical Commission office/library we have a copy of the publication, Epitaphs from the Old Burying Ground in Cambridge (1845) by William T. Harris. (This publication is also available online at Google Books). We also have an index and maps of the burial plots that was compiled in 2000 by Richard B. Anderson, Ed.D. from our files and map of the cemetery. These files have been scanned and can be downloaded as four pdf files: Cover material and notes; Base map and smaller sub-maps; Name index; Sub-map index. These are large files, especially the maps file.

  • Does a blue oval historic marker indicate that a property is regulated by the Historical Commission?

    No. Properties that are marked with blue-oval historic markers are not necessarily protected by any design review or other regulation by the Historical Commission. The marker program was started in 1976, and today there are nearly one hundred of these "blue ovals" scattered throughout the city, marking sites of historical importance. The sites were chosen, not for the architectural significance of the existing structures, but for the sites' relationship to important events or persons. The presence of a blue oval historic marker does not mean that the structure on the site is a designated property with regulatory protection from inappropriate changes. For a list of properties that are regulated by the Cambridge Historical Commission or one of the neighborhood conservation district commissions, check our maps of districts and individually protected properties. You might also be interested in the interactive StoryMap of local landmarks.


  • What advice can you give me about window repair?

    The CHC staff has an information guide about historic wood windows and options for repair vs. replacement. Follow this link to view the guidelines. If you own a designated property and would like to make changes to your windows, please contact the staff about filing an application for a certificate.

  • What is the inscription over the front door of Cambridge City Hall and who wrote it?

    The inscription reads as follows,

    God has given Commandments unto Men. From these
    Commandments Men have framed Laws by which to be
    governed. It is honorable and praiseworthy to faithfully serve the
    people by helping to administer these Laws. If the Laws
    are not enforced, the People are not well governed.

    The inscription was selected and probably even written by the building's first owner and city benefactor, Frederick Hastings Rindge.