Cambridge Eyesores: Is the End Near for the Middlesex Jail and Courthouse?

Cambridge Eyesores: Is the End Near for the Middlesex Jail and Courthouse?

By Karen Klinger

An account of the development of East Cambridge by the city’s historical commission says land speculator Andrew Craigie played his part in 1813 by donating buildings to house the Middlesex County jail and courthouse there.

By 1841, though, the commission says matters had gone awry at the correctional facility, as evidenced by “social activist Dorothea Dix (who) was outraged by conditions in the jail and began her pioneering work in prison reform.”

It seems some things never change.

On July 5, inmates in the overcrowded, asbestos-plagued building that houses the current jail rioted, flooding it when they broke sprinkler heads in the fire protection system, causing at least $400,000 in damages.

Sheriff James V. DiPaola said the inmates, four of whom faces charges of malicious destruction of property, had been unhappy about the overcrowding and worried about rumors that the swine flu virus was sweeping through the jail after one man among them was found to be infected.

Officials said that when the rioting broke out the jail, built to house 160 people, had an inmate population that exceeded 400, all of them pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of anything. In conditions that likely would not surprise Dorothea Dix, they had to sleep in hallways, the cafeteria and even the jail’s chapel.

It is an irony that the overcrowding occurred in a jail that occupies four of the upper floors of an otherwise vacant 22-story building. Built in 1971 and known as the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse, the high-rise structure was abandoned last year by the Middlesex Superior Court and the district attorney’s office, which both moved to Woburn.

Earlier this year, the Third District Court followed suit, moving to Medford, leaving just the jail and the sheriff’s office.

The moves were prompted by the need for extensive renovations to the building to remove the asbestos, replace the elevators, upgrade the heating, air conditioning and utility systems and make numerous other improvements, work that the state Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) estimated in 2006 would cost about $130 million.

The jail, too, was supposed to have been closed by now. In fact, it was supposed to close in 2005 because of the asbestos problem. But it remained open because the state’s surging inmate population meant DiPaola could find few other places to hold the prisoners.

Now, he may be forced to act, and soon. In the wake of the jail flooding, which required the evacuation of a substantial portion of the inmate population, DCAM Deputy Director Kevin Flanagan indicated that the state may be ready to give up on the building altogether.

“There are no renovations going on at the Sullivan building, nor are there imminent plans to start the renovation work,” Flanagan told the Cambridge Chronicle. He said a detailed analysis of the work required to make the facility suitable for longterm use showed it to be much more involved and expensive than previously thought.

If that spells the end for the courthouse, the reaction from most Cantabrigians is likely to be cheers rather than tears for a very visible building that is widely disliked, if not outright loathed.

On any list of Cambridge eyesores, the Sullivan high-rise is likely to score near the top. It has been called a “triumph of Stalinist architecture,” a “hideous monument to concrete,” “East Cambridge’s sore thumb” and numerous epithets that cannot be repeated.

Many of the people who worked there also hated it. They complained that the lighting was poor, it was too hot in summer and too cold in winter, the elevators were constantly out of service, it was sterile and generally, just not a pleasant place to be.

About the only thing the Sullivan building seemed to have going for it was its location, near the green line Lechmere T station and close to the shops of the Cambridgeside Galleria and the restaurants along Cambridge Street.

As the Middlesex Superior Court was getting ready for its move to Woburn, clerk magistrate Michael Sullivan—a former Cambridge city councilor—told the Boston Globe that people were “excited about having a building where the heat works in winter and the air conditioning works in summer, and you can actually open the windows.”

The Cambridge courthouse was built during an era when a stark architectural style aptly called “brutalist” was in vogue, the best local example being the often disparaged Boston City Hall. The Sullivan building could be seen as its uglier stepsister across the Charles River.

Among the courthouse’s vocal detractors is Cambridge City Councilor Timothy Toomey, who has called it a “white elephant” that should be razed.

Now, it appears he may get his wish.


Great article. I've been living in the shadow of this building for years, and would ok e to have a better view and a more frieny use of that block. From what I hear, it will be a tough sell. It will apparently cost millions to remove the asbestos before the building can even be razed.

If the Heat doesn't work in the winter and there is no air conditioning and windows don't open in the summer, WHY are they holding 300 -500 people there waiting to go to trial?? Sounds like torture to me. Many of those held may be innocent. HELLO PEOPLE!!! Is water-boarding allowed?

I'm pretty sure the windows open. I can hear them yelling from my house two blocks away every time there is a game on TV.