Cambridge Recreation Department Collection

The Cambridge Recreation Department Collection is now processed and available for research! This collection was donated to the Cambridge Historical Commission in August 1995 by Curtis Gaines, an employee of Human Services.

The Collection

This collection includes scrapbooks, books, and photographs that once belonged to the Recreation Department, as well as photographs that were already in the possession of the CHC. Much of the materials consist of City Council orders concerning park maintenance and upkeep, as well as department financial matters. The collection also includes budget appropriations materials, planning materials for parks and playgrounds, and department reports.

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Preliminary Design for the Proposed Observatory Hill Park, Cambridge Planning Board, March 1950. Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

A Brief History of the Recreation Department

The Cambridge Recreation Department was established in 1892 as the Cambridge, Massachusetts Park Commission. The Board of Park Commissioners with chairman General E. W. Hincks were now tasked with providing Cambridge citizens with a worthy park system. Previously, Cambridge only had a few poorly planned and maintained public parks with no public programs.

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Cambridge City Council Order March 29, 1892, ordering “…the Committee on Parks be directed to consider and report upon the advisability of purchasing a tract of land…” Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

The commissioners hired landscape architect Charles Eliot and his firm, Olmsted, Olmsted, & Eliot to improve the existing parks and plan new ones in poorer, more congested neighborhoods. In 1894, the city acquired Donnelly Field in East Cambridge, Rindge Field in North Cambridge, and the entire Cambridge frontage of the Charles River. The latter section gave the department 800 acres of mud flat and degraded salt marsh by eminent domain and by 1914 a park was created along the length of the city’s shoreline. In 1910, the city began to construct playgrounds and to operate recreation programs there, and these functions expanded after the riverfront park was transferred to the Metropolitan District Commission in 1921.

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City Council Order asking that the Park Commissioners purchase “Jerry’s Pit” to create a swimming pool. Dated April 7, 1914. Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

Maypole events were organized by the Cambridge Park Commission in the 1920s and 1930s. After the crowning of a “May Queen,” the young and gaily attired girls of the city would dance around the Maypole. Following this ceremony, there would be music, baskets of flowers, and other spring-themed activities for the children.

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This image depicts a scene from a May festival on the Cambridge Common c.1925. Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

After World War II, the responsibilities of the Park Commission were divided between the Department of Public Works and the Human Services Department. DPW began to oversee the parks, while Human Services took over recreational programs.

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A group of teenagers posing on the ice during the 1940s. Three are holding hockey sticks. Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

We will soon be adding images from this collection to the Cambridge Recreation Department Collection on the Cambridge Historical Commission Flickr page. Follow us on Flickr and Instagram to stay up-to-date!

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