The North Cambridge neighborhood known today as Porter Square takes its name from Zachariah B. Porter, a highly successful innkeeper once described as “a host no one could excel and very few could match.” Porter’s Hotel was demolished long ago to make way for new developments and his large cattle stockyards are now occupied by houses and business blocks. However, Porter’s name persists throughout the square.
Zachariah B. Porter, “Old Zach” as his patrons and friends called him, was born in 1797 in Vermont. In the early 1830s, Porter managed the Cattle Fair Hotel, a large hotel near the Brighton Stockyards. Brighton was, at the time, an important center of commerce for New England’s livestock industry and droves of cattle, sheep and pigs were brought down from Maine, New Hampshire and elsewhere to be slaughtered and sold. Porter remained in Brighton until 1837, when a falling out with the Cattle Fair’s owner, John Bennett, led him to a new business venture across the Charles River in Cambridge. Porter and his business partners – Colonel George Meacham and carriage manufacturer Ebenezer Kimball – purchased a recently foreclosed stockyard, slaughterhouse and hotel that had been constructed in 1931 by Sylvester Edson. The Cattle Market Hotel’s new owners would rename the business Porter’s Hotel, and under their watch it would become a Cambridge landmark.
The hotel, a drab-colored, three-story wooden structure with a row of gabled Lutheran windows projecting out from its sloped roof, stood at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Upland Road. The surrounding stockyards occupied seventeen and a half acres and stretched all the way north to today’s Creighton Street. Cattlemen from as far away as Michigan would bring their droves to Porter’s before selling them in the Boston markets. In 1843, the Fitchburg Railroad was built through Porter Square, allowing even greater numbers of stock animals to be brought to market. Porter capitalized on the growing cattle trade and catered to the drovers’ needs – boarding cattle in the yards for free and offering discounted meals (drovers often ate for twenty-five cents while other patrons might pay a dollar or more for the same fare). Porter’s legendary hospitality quickly attracted the attention of well-to-do Cantabrigians and Harvard students, who were served side-by-side with the visiting cattlemen. People of all stripes appreciated the hotel’s beautifully decorated dancing hall, fresh cuts of beef and athletic contests and Porter’s became a fixture of the Cambridge community for generations.
How famous was Porter’s Hotel? So famous it may have left a permanent mark on the American menu. Although competing legends exist, one theory asserts that the popular porterhouse steak may be named for the North Cambridge tavern and its beloved host. The porterhouse, a thick cut of beef with a T-shaped bone dividing a New York Strip Steak (also known as a top loin) and a large tenderloin filet, may have been first served at the hotel sometime after the Civil War, according to a report from one of Porter’s former cooks. Skeptics have pointed out that Old Zach’s establishment was always referred to as “Porter’s Hotel” and never “Porter’s House.” In the 1800s, many taverns did bill themselves as “porter-houses” after the dark, malty porter beers they served. Two such establishments – one in Manhattan and the other in Georgia – claim to have invented the porterhouse steak. Sandusky, Ohio also claims to be the steak’s birthplace. The story goes that, while on a 1842 tour of America, author Charles Dickens spent an extended stay at the Porter House, a Sandusky hotel. Later in his trip, in Buffalo, N. Y., Dickens requested “a steak like you get at the Porter house in Sandusky.” Dickens’ Buffalo innkeeper wrote Sandusky for the recipe and later advertised that his establishment sold a “Porter-house steak like Charles Dickens likes.” An 1842 register from the Sandusky Porter House bears Charles Dickens’ signature, but his thoughts on the steak (and what it was called) were not recorded.
Zachariah Porter died in 1864 and was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Following his death, the hotel was leased to Amos Pike, who continued to operate an inn on the premises. The neighboring cattle markets were closed in 1871, but the hotel persisted with a succession of proprietors at the helm. By 1901, the tavern had come under the management of Edwin I. D. Houck, who had occasional run-ins with the law over illegal stores of liquor kept at the hotel. Houck disappeared one night in August 1901 and his wife Cora became the hotel’s new proprietor. The Cambridge papers at the time reported that “domestic infelicity is attributed to his sudden disappearance,” suggesting that he may have run out on his wife and skipped town. In 1903, Caroline Porter, Old Zach’s daughter, sold the property to real estate managers William F. Brooks and James J. Conley, who already owned much of the land in the surrounding area. Under Brooks and Conley, the hotel was mostly unsuccessful and in 1907, they moved the building to the back of the lot so that a more modern business block could be put up on the corner. The hotel was converted into apartments, which proved to be an unpopular venture. By 1909, Brooks and Conley had demolished the historic inn and built a large garage in its place.
Many turn-of-the-century articles eulogizing Zachariah Porter and his famous hotel also make mention of his son Josiah. Born in 1830, Josiah was a Harvard graduate and led a decorated military career. He served as Captain of the Massachusetts 1st Battery during the Civil War and later as Colonel of the 22nd Regiment of the New York National Guard. In 1886, he was appointed Adjutant-General of New York (the state’s highest military office). He died on December 14th, 1894 after suffering a stroke while aboard the Third Avenue elevated train in Manhattan. He was buried near his father in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. In 1902, the 22nd Regiment honored his memory with a statue in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The inscription reads: “erected by the National Guard of New York in appreciation of his fidelity as a patriot, his qualities as a soldier and his services on behalf of the National Guard.”
Today, Porter Square’s most eye-catching feature is Gift of the Wind, a large-scale steel sculpture set nearly fifty feet in the air. The sculpture, three red, balloon-like wings which flip in the wind and rotate around their aluminum base, is located just outside the Porter Square MBTA station and across the street from the former location of Porter’s Hotel. It is one of the most recognizable pieces in the MBTA’s art collection and was commissioned as part of the “Arts on the Line” initiative in 1985. Its sculptor is Susumu Shingu, an Osaka-born artist who has created large, kinetic installations for public spaces around the world. The Boston area is home to two other Shingu works: Echo of the Waves, a marine life-inspired piece outside the New England Aquarium, and Wind Traveller in Eastport Park.