The bulldozer has arrived at my favorite house in Larchwood; they are digging the foundation extension, tearing off the roof, gutting the interior plaster. A simple cottage with fairy tale proportions is expanding. It held out a long time, nearly a hundred years. Given its tiny lot and modest frontage I dreamed that maybe it could slip beneath the radar of house explosions in that neighborhood, but progress and real estate brokers leave no stone unturned in a place as desirable as Larchwood, so it was inevitable that someone with deeper pockets than me would be captivated by the cottage, purchase it and improve it beyond recognition. That is the fate of houses in Larchwood, a charming neighborhood that has evolved from stability to affluence, though the more affluent it becomes, the less charm it retains.
I know Larchwood well. I ride my bike through it every day; it is my preferred destination for an evening walk. While much of Cambridge contains orderly rows of two and three family houses, like nearby Aberdeen Street; or equally orderly rows of mansions, like nearby Brattle Street, Larchwood is unique among Cambridge neighborhoods. When it was carved out of the 38 acre Samuel Grey estate in 1915, it was the last sizable parcel left in the city. Henry Hubbard, a protégé of Frederick Law Olmstead, laid the enclave out according to garden city principles in vogue at the time. Larchwood has narrow curving streets, petit sidewalks, and shallow front yards. The original houses are all different and all solid, but they are not immense. Larchwood is Cambridge’s answer to Forest Hills; a model train town come to life; a Halloween trick-or-treater’s dream come true where upscale houses sit really close together.
As the twentieth century wound down and Cambridge’s wealth triggered up, professors made more money consulting than teaching and quaint houses proximate to Harvard appreciated. But 2000 square foot miniaturized Georgian Colonials and half-timber Tudors lack sizzle. People wanting ‘signature houses’ started popping out the backs and the sides and sometimes even the tops of these gentle homes. When I moved to Cambridge in the early 90’s my favorite house was a gable front cottage inhabited by an eccentric MIT professor I knew from the 70’s. Upon his death, the new owner augmented the simple dwelling in every direction. The former cottage now sports a turret, a side wing, a back wing and a very unfortunate garage. After that cottage inflated beyond recognition, I turned my fantasies to its more homely cousin around the corner.
Over the intervening twenty years more than half the houses in Larchwood have grown. Some additions are well conceived, a few are awful. Cumulatively the garden aspect of the neighborhood has declined; bigger buildings mean less green space. I am thankful that the neighborhood is protected from tear-downs, which puts at least some restraints on construction zeal, but I wonder why people buy nicely proportioned homes and then twist them beyond recognition. Does the diminishing American family really need more than 2,000 square feet, when most of the time we occupy no more space than the tiny bubble surrounding us and our electronic device? Does every new owner need to make an imprint on his structure, even when the result is regressive? Our credit cards itch until we scratch them to their limit; we add on, and on, and on, because we can.
I was sad but not surprised to see the forces of progress obliterate the little cottage I admired. I fantasized about one day moving out of my own house (which is sizable yet retains the same footprint it was born with 115 years ago) and retiring to that modest two story rectangle with its tiny attic window. The cottage invited rest and repose. It seemed the perfect house for nestling into a long book on a winter afternoon and reading in the faint daylight until lapsing into eternal sleep; I could imagine no more pleasant setting for my last breath. But now the house will be big and fresh and I will have to find a new end of life fantasy; it would never do to slip peacefully away in a house so full of bumps and pops.
People love Larchwood because it induces visions of grace and community and simplicity. But the cost of entry is so high, that once landed there, people cannot leave simplicity alone.