MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

The Rogers Building, Boston, 1866-1938

MIT's First Building

The Rogers Building and New Building, ca. 1883

MIT’s first students (the Class of 1868) began their studies in rented space in the Mercantile Building on Summer Street in downtown Boston.  Planning for a permanent building for the Institute had been under way since 1863, but it was not until the fall semester of 1866 that the new building, designed by architects Jonathan and William G. Preston and constructed on Boylston Street between Berkeley and Clarendon Streets in Boston’s Back Bay, was ready for occupancy

Main Corridor

The spacious new building, with a classical façade, was about 95 feet wide by 140 feet long, consisting of five stories and one “half story.”  MIT’s founder and first president, William Barton Rogers, gave his personal attention to the layout of interior space.  Chemical and metallurgical studies were housed in the basement.  The president’s office, lecture rooms, and a physics laboratory occupied much of the first floor, while mathematics, astronomy, civil engineering, and modern languages filled most of the second.  The “half story” between floors two and three was reserved for museum and library use.  Lecture halls for architecture and mechanical engineering occupied the third story, in addition to rooms for drawing and modeling.  The top floor housed a photography laboratory, faculty offices, and accommodations for free-hand drawing.  Some observers commented in the early years on the contrast between the building’s elegant exterior and the cluttered, industrial appearance of much of the interior space.

Huntington Hall

One of the more imposing spaces in the building was Huntington Hall, named for Ralph Huntington, a generous benefactor.  The hall was used for large lectures and assemblies.  Organizations other than MIT also made use of the space.  The Lowell Lectures were delivered there for many years, and the congregation of Trinity Church met there each Sunday for five years while architect H. H. Richardson completed their famous “Richardsonian Romanesque” church building, which has become the centerpiece of Copley Square.  A large frieze in Huntington Hall depicting scientists and engineers at work was presented by the Class of 1905.

Biological Laboratory

In 1883, one year after the death of William Barton Rogers, the MIT Corporation voted to name the facility “The Rogers Building.”  Already, however, the Institute had started to outgrow the building.  By the early twentieth century MIT had spread to a dozen or so buildings in the Copley Square area and the need for more space was obvious, foreshadowing the Institute’s 1916 move of most operations to the current Cambridge campus.  The old Rogers Building continued in use as the School of Architecture into the 1930s. In 1937 it was purchased by the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company and razed in 1939 to make way for their new home office.  The name “Rogers” was reassigned to MIT’s Building 7 on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

This month we celebrate the 146th anniversary of the founding of MIT (in April 1861). Records pertaining to MIT’s architecture and other aspects of the Institute’s history, including a small collection of materials pertaining to New England Mutual Life Insurance (MC 616), can be used in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

Images from Photogravure Views of the Mass. Institute of Technology, Boston, 1889.

Related exhibits:
Fire Insurance Policy on MIT's First Building, 1866-1867
The Rogers Laboratory of Physics, 1869

For more about the construction of MIT's first building, see Julius A. Stratton and Loretta H. Mannix,
Mind and Hand: The Birth of MIT,
MIT Press, 2005, Chapter 14.

The former Boston Society of Natural History building (1863), of similar design by William Preston, survives as Louis Boston on Berkeley Street between Newbury and Boylston Streets.

Object of the Month: April 2007

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