Our History

INSIDE BULFINCH SQUARE: How We Didn't Become a Parking Lot, But Did Become East Cambridge's Most Elegant Destination For The Arts

A Brief History by Former Executive Director, Shelley Neill


HISTORY What is the history of the building?

We are located inside the Bulfinch Square complex, occupying 8,250 square feet of a 76,600 square foot building, originally designed as the Middlesex County Courthouse by noted architect Charles Bulfinch, and built in stages from 1889-1920.


When did the Multicultural Arts Center move in?
To quote the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Or at least they tried. After the courthouse was abandoned in the late 1970's, the plan was to tear down Bulfinch Square and build a parking lot in its place. The plan failed after community activists, artists, and the City of Cambridge intervened to secure the building, thus canceling the plan to demolish it.


During the years when the building was abandoned, the building's condition grew increasingly inhospitable with roof damage and heating and plumbing issues that would eventually require major renovation workin order to make the building habitable.

So in 1980, with assistance from the City of Cambridge, the Multicultural Arts Center obtained a 99-year lease from Middlesex County of Bulfinch Square, for a nominal rent - $1 per year. That was the first step - and it was huge - because for a brief period we had a 99-year lease for $1 per year on a building that is currently valued at twelve million ($12,000,000) dollars.


However, before we could move in, we needed to do a great deal of clean-up, repair and replacement of essential systems, so the second step involved the Multicultural Arts Center obtaining an $835,000 Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG), (again with the help of the City of Cambridge), in order to renovate Bulfinch Square. The Multicultural Arts Center then entered into an agreement and loaned the UDAG funds to architect Graham Gund, and gave him assignment of the 99-year lease - forever changing our status from lease owner to renter.


OUR LEASE What are the annual costs associated with our status as renters of this beautiful building?

Our current rental agreement is based on terms agreed to in 1985, with revisions that were negotiated in 1991. We never did end up with a $1 per year rent, (although we still hear that rumor!); but having assigned the lease to Graham Gund, (d/b/a Bulfinch Square LP), we currently pay over $150,000 per year for rent.


This requires us to raise funds to pay our rent and to cover other building operation expenses. For example, each year we receive an end of year bill, and we are asked to pay for "our share" of the operating costs of Bulfinch Square Complex, which is based on the square footage of space that we occupy. These expenses are called escalation charges. These escalation charges, are on top of our $150,000 per year rent - so as you can imagine - we need to raise a lot of money each year! In addition to these fees, based on the way our lease was written, we are responsible for making all of our own interior upgrades and improvements, much like owning a condo!


Multicultural Arts Center

41 Second Street
East Cambridge, MA 02141


Our facility is accessible.


Rental tours are available by appointment. See our Rental page. 

Tuesday-Friday, 10am-6pm.


Tuesdays, Wednesday and Fridays,

Thursdays, 10am-8pm.

Our Social Mission


We support diversity through the visual and performing arts events that we present. Because we are a multi-use art center, we make our space available to artists and groups who may not otherwise have access to a professionally equipped and accessible facility or the cultural mainstream.


Click HERE for more details


Our historic venue is the perfect place for Private, Corporate, and Non-Profit events.




Visit the Multicultural Arts Center's Shop for art and gifts.

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