Girded on one end by Massachusetts Avenue, on the other by Harvard Street, and traversed at its western length by a publicly accessible foot path, the property surrounding the home of the congregation of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church and the José Mateo Ballet Theatre is anything but secret or hidden.
The present gardens, designed in consultation with Boston-based landscape designer Ann Uppington, comprise 17 planting beds, all maintained through organic land practices. A rainwater recovery system harvests rain off of the roof, to prevent flooding in the building; it also is the source of water for irrigation of the gardens.
Foundation plantings of flowering, deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs, as well as numerous perennials and some annuals, provide natural interest and botanical variety throughout the year. The plantings attract several species of birds, as well as bees, butterflies, and other insects. A wide range of flowering perennials affords visual delight and supplies fresh flowers from early spring to late fall for bouquets for church services, ballet programs and gifts to shut-ins. A not-so-welcome feature of nature is the invasion of a community of rabbits who destroy the tender shoots of all manner of plants, as well as help keep the grass short.
Landscaping and maintenance of the gardens, initially the combined labor of love of Scott Fraser, Managing Director of the José Mateo Ballet Theater, and Grace Peters, a volunteer from OCBC, continues under the direction of Grace, with the dedicated help of OCBC member Sue Schroen and other volunteers.
These gardens are intended for the enjoyment and spiritual nourishment of all who use the building, and those who live, work, visit or pass through the adjoining neighborhoods. Three garden benches offer places for guests to meet, sit, visit, meditate, and enjoy the well-tended natural surroundings.
Volunteer gardeners are welcomed. No previous experience required. Tools and gloves provided.
In 1897, the original Parrish Hall was lost in a fire. Noted Boston Theater Architect, Clarence Blackall oversaw the rebuilding of the Hall. The most notable feature of the reconstruction is an 1890 Tiffany & Company Window. This early Tiffany window bridges the gothic stained glass tradition and emerging art nouveau movement.
OCBC was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Recent Renovation History
After decades of deferring maintenance, around the year 2000, OCBC assembled the resources to begin stabilizing the church building. This was accomplished through private donations, grants from both the city and state, and grants from business entities to the Jose Mateo Ballet Theater, a building tenant. In conjunction with the construction of a hotel on an adjacent site, Harvard provided funds to reinforce the roof trusses and the unique stone steeple. Early on in the process to protect both the initial and new investments, the entire building was rewired and a fire alarm system installed.
Reattaching floor joists to the stone walls stabilized sinking floors and allowed the sanctuary to be used as a dance venue for the ballet company. Structural accommodations were made to allow removable bleacher seating in the sanctuary. Two new restrooms were installed to the side of the baptistery and space for a washing machine and dryer carved out to the rear of the restrooms.
Major changes were made to the interior circulation: the church office was moved to the main basement entrance, the chapel reconfigured to provide access to the pastor’s office, the kitchen relocated from the basement to the side of the parish hall and a balcony constructed in the parish hall to provide a required second exit from upper story rooms.
Cosmetic changes were made. The rostrum and the choir lofts to the front of the sanctuary were removed. The 1940’s chandeliers were removed, pews discarded, the tower entry refurbished, and the basement offices, long rented to tenants, had new walls and ceilings con For the first time since the 1940s, the sanctuary and parish hall were painted. A fresh air ventilation system was installed in the basement office rental spaces.
The building envelope required major financial commitments. The windows were completely rebuilt and rehung and the Tiffany window in the parish hall disassembled and restored The stone walls--described as “neatly stacked”--require ongoing repointing. The Massachusetts Avenue entry steps and walkways restoration resulted in the design of magnificent perennial gardens on all sides of the church. To alleviate frequent flooding of the basement offices, a rain water retention tank was installed. Water collected will water gardens and be used in restroom toilets.
We continually endeavor to make OCBC's historic building in Harvard Square "greener" and more energy efficient, according with our community's commitment to environmental justice and sustainability.