Cambridge’s Magazine Beach powder house to get facelift


By Erin Baldassari, Cambridge Chronicle

Built almost 200 years ago, the powder house at Magazine Beach once served the country’s first militia, acted as a public bathhouse and – with a new roof slated to start construction in the fall – may one day soon have a new identity entirely.

After two and a half years of pressure, fundraising and support from the Cambridge Neighborhood Association, representatives of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) said at a May 16 meeting that roof repairs will go out to bid this summer.

Constructed in 1818 on a stretch of land then known as Captain’s Island, the magazine was one of two powder houses erected to supply the commonwealth’s first guardsmen. It replaced the most prominent magazine at the time — the powder house in Somerville at what is now called Powder House Square, said Cambridge Historical Commission Executive Director Charles Sullivan.

“At that time, every town had a repository for gunpowder because it was far too dangerous to keep it in houses or stores,” Sullivan said. “The state had a greater need for storage and powder, partly for the militia and partly for ships that always carried canons in those days and needed a place to store the powder when they were in port.”

The storehouse was used through the Civil War until it was sold in 1882 to a private individual, and the building fell into disrepair. Sullivan said scavengers stripped the building of its bricks, copper nails and woodwork, until only the granite walls were left.

The city took the land by eminent domain in 1892 to create the riverfront parks and Memorial Drive and returned the building to public use. Under the Olmstead Park System, the magazine was converted to a public bathhouse for men and boys in 1899.

An immediately popular swimming hole, additional bathhouses were built by the city around 1900. Built of wood frames, the four auxiliary structures were destroyed in a fire in 1916. By 1949, the Charles River became so contaminated, the state closed the river to swimming, Sullivan said.

“After the bathing stopped, they converted it to a garage to store equipment, and then it hasn’t had any active use for decades and decades, so it was allowed to rot,” Sullivan said. “It was in a pretty bad way until the CNA (Cambridge Neighborhood Association) picked it up and decided to put it to another use.”

With a $25,000 grant from Community Preservation Act funds, the neighborhood association was able to secure matching funds from DCR, which contributed $50,000, to undertake an historic structure report and roof repairs. A draft of the report was presented at the meeting on May 16, and representatives of the agency said the final report will be completed by the end of the month.

“DCR wants to stabilize the building and see what’s needed to do that,” said Conrad Crawford, DCR director of partnership. “The first thing is to fix the roof so the building doesn’t degrade anymore.”

DCR estimates the project to cost roughly $200,000; a sum that would cover reroofing both the magazine and an addition built on the north side of the building, removing graffiti, initiating a testing and observation program to detect settlement relative to existing cracks, and providing security lighting for the area.

Neighborhood association member Cathie Zusy said the commitment to rebuild the roof was “monumental.” Zusy has been a leader in galvanizing the community to rehab the old powder house. Eventually, Zusy said she hopes the building will be reused in a way that “reflects the vitality of Cambridge.”

“I feel like we’re on the cusp of change, and that’s really exciting,” she said.

In the meantime, Zusy said the association has an additional $10,000 to contribute to the project and is hoping DCR will award another two-to-one matching grant in May. Although it is still a long way off, Zusy said she hopes the entire area – not just the powder house – will receive a facelift.

The play structure adjacent to the park needs repairs, a sunken concrete swath of land could use some greening, and the broken wading pool should be fixed, removed or replaced, Zusy said. More than just repairing what’s already there, Zusy said the park around the magazine is a missed opportunity for a recreational space that could be re-imagined to serve more of the community.

“This is a very densely packed urban environment, and we really need our open spaces,” Zusy said. “We should take advantage of this space as a retreat, a place to revitalize, a place to connect with nature and to connect with the community.”

Zusy said she envisions incorporating artists to design the lighting and landscape the area, and is right now in the process of reaching out to neighbors and Cambridge residents about what they’d like to see if the powder house were to reopen again to the public.

DCR presented four options to the people at the meeting: stabilize the building as an historic feature with no further use at this time, use the building for DCR storage or offices, rehabilitate it as an interpretive center, or allow a third part to permit or lease the building in an open competitive process to identify its new use.

Zusy said she’s partial to the latter option. The association surveyed over 200 area residents, who suggested the building turn into a concession stand with beverages and light snacks or as a place to rent kayaks and recreational gear for the river. Zusy said other possibilities might include a performance or community space.

“We need people to imagine what it could be or should be if it’s going to be a relevant space for 2014 or 2015 in the same way that the Olmsted brothers turned it from a powder magazine to a bathhouse,” Zusy said.

Zusy said the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association is hosting a celebration of Magazine Beach on Saturday, June 15, noon to 5 p.m. with picnicking, music, performances, and an art installation that interprets the history of the building. Zusy said the installation is also interviewing and archiving oral histories of people with memories of swimming and picnicking at the beach.

Those with memories of Magazine Beach can contact Zusy at or 617-868-0489.

Contact Cambridge Chronicle assistant editor Erin Baldassari at 617-629-3390 or, and follow her on Twitter: @e_baldi. 


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