Formerly known as "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts".

Monday, August 22, 2011

Examining the Cambridge Poor Farm 1-2

Wow, time flies. I started my blog "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts" on August 24, 2010. A year ago, I had little connection with Massachusetts. I knew nobody, I knew nothing about the place! I started the blog hoping to know people in my neighborhood and learn about this tremendously interesting state. The result? It has been great. The idea for my blog is still bottomless, and I hope I can continue my "quirky" adventure further. I thank all the readers and people I became to know through my investigation.

Today, I'd like to introduce what I found through my little research about an ex-almshouse in my neighborhood. Together with Gaebler Children's Center in Waltham, this is one of the most memorable places for me because I became to know some fabulous people though the investigation. -- Shuko K.

Then: from Cambridge Chronicle Mar. 22, 1851
Now: Aug., 2011

The city of Cambridge deserves infinite credit for its great liberality and intelligence in erecting such an edifice, and it can without presumption, take to itself the honor of having within its borders one of the best Almshouses in the country; a distinction more to be envied than its fine churches, public buildings or even its world-renowned Harvard University. --  from Cambridge Chronicle, March 22, 1851

The Cambridge Poor Farm is a less known sister of the Charles Street Jail (now the Liberty Hotel) in Boston. Planned by Gridley J. F. Bryant and Rev. Louis Dwight -- both progressive prison reformers of the time-- and completed in 1851, the almshouse housed "orphans, paupers, the elderly, and the insane" of the city of Cambridge. Approximately 30,000 dollars were spent in completing the almshouse. The building is currently utilized as an international school.

After several visits to the newly opened Cambridge Room at the Cambridge Public Library, the archivist found a piece of rather obscure history from our local newspaper, the Cambridge Chronicle. Together with other sources and my past post,  today I'll show you what I found thorough this mini research. Before I embark on the virtual tour, I want you to keep in mind that the Cambridge Poor Farm was established under the progressive philosophy and state-of-the-art architectural design. While investigating, I thought some of the practices employed at the poor farm were out-dated or even dubious from the contemporary eyes. On the other hand, I feel those practices are well ingrained to our consciousness; they become more coded and subtly nuanced. Even so, it is worth while seeing from a perspective that the almshouse was regarded as one of the greatest civil achievements of the 19th century Cambridge.

The article, which was printed for the March 22, 1851 edition, gives a detailed explanation of the original structure. The basic principal throughout the building was: the front wing for the administrators, the east (left) wing for female "inmates", and the east (right) wing for male "inmates". The central building, which was usually partitioned by sex, was devoted to a working or communal space. For example, the below is the original drawings of the basement floor:

Click picture to enlarge -- from Cambridge Chronicle


The basement floor (S: I believe this is the floor the current entrance is situated, so I count this floor as the first floor) chiefly functioned as the kitchen, dining, bathing, and laundry spaces.What struck me the most is the existence of punitive cells:
On this floor of the east and west wings are Punishment Cell for refractory inmates, which can be made quite dark, or graduated to different degree of light (Cambridge Chronicle 1).
While the word "cell" is conveniently not-present from the floor plan, quite possibly the spaces between No. 9 and 8 in the East Wing and No. 10 and 11 in the West Wing were allocated as the cells.

The use of light and darkness intrigues me the most. I assume the degree of darkness corresponds with the one of inmates undesirable behaviour; the darker (and quieter) the cell gets, the more refractory the contained inmate is. Rev. Dwight was a prison reformer who had a strong belief in the Auburn System of penitential management, and he must have believed that man only could be compliant by placing him to silence. Darkness played the visual indicator of the degree of silence.

Click picture to enlarge -- from Cambridge Chronicle

2nd and 3rd floor functioned as workshops and dormitories. Separated by a partition, the male and female inmates were completely segregated. For example, the woman's dormitory was on the west wing, and some of them worked on the west side of the central building during the day. If the almshouse adopted Rev. Dwight's Auburn System, the work room should have kept completely silent. But how about the inmates who were assigned to work on the field or at the nearby Alewife brook? How could the men cast and drag a fishing net without shouting? And I wonder how strict the gender division was supervised for the outside labor. 

Control through architectural design

What I'm generally interested in the 19th century prisons and institutions is that how the authority created an effective observation system through the architectural design. I'll cite some of the mentions about the observation system gained through the design.

These (S: workshops) are in the octagonal section. A partition runs directly across the centre of the building, this dividing in half. One part is for women and one for men. This arrangement admits of complete supervision, on overseer being enabled with all ease to superintend both departments (Cambridge Chronicle 1).

Dwight and Bryant conceived the Alms House on a radial plan, having a central block for supervised activity and separate residential wings for men and women. This concept was based upon 18th century English prototypes and Dwight's long experience with the prison reform movement in the United States (Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge 131).

In my view, the most notable example of the prison design is the Jeremy Bentham's  Panopticon (i.e. Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois). But the radial plan represented by the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was also widely applied to the prison design worldwide. In any ways, the Cambridge Poor Farm was designed to aim for the efficient supervision through architectural design. You can see how simple and efficient the Rev. Dwight and Bryant's plan was by comparing a proposed plan by Ammi B. Young:

Click picture to enlarge--from Cambridge Historical Commission

Rev. Dwight and Bryant's plan must have been chosen by the city because of the expected ease of surveillance through design; if you were a keeper of the almshouse, which plan would you like to adopt?

Ok, I end today's post here. In next few days (I hope...), I'll post more about the upper floors and some of the notable functions of the building I'd like to show. Bye bye now.

Continue to: Examining the Cambridge Poor Farm 2-2

Locate Cambridge Poor Farm @ Google Map

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