Seeking the Ghost of Edwin Land at Polaroid’s Former Headquarters

Seeking the Ghost of Edwin Land at Polaroid’s Former Headquarters

2200 1238 James Tocchio

I’m not sure what I expected. That the fluorescent overhead lights would flicker and dim, that a cold fog would spring from unseen wells along the floor, that time would slow, and that the ghost of Edwin Land, Polaroid’s founder, would coalesce out of a chill mist to shake my hand and say, “Thanks for helping people stay interested in film.”

Or maybe that I’d strike up a conversation with a kindly, old janitor. That they’d see the Polaroid camera in my hand and shout, “A Polaroid? You’ve come home!” That they’d bring me to a hidden storage vault wherein is kept the last 24 karat gold Polaroid SX70, new in box, a donation to my humble website.

I knew intellectually that nothing like that would happen. But I admit that I was taken aback when, as I drifted my way through Polaroid’s former headquarters upon the east side of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a few days ago, nothing happened at all.

No pictures on the walls. No memorial cabinets. No statues or monuments or relics under glass. Not even a brass plaque declaring “Here, from 1979 to 1996, the great Polaroid Corporation of Cambridge Massachusetts did repeatedly revolutionize the instant film industry and bring countless happy smiles to millions of camera likers the world over!”

I guess I should’ve known. My first hint of a disappointing result came earlier in the day when I had run into an old friend who happened, many years ago, to work for Polaroid.

“Oh, that reminds me. I’m going to go visit the old Polaroid headquarters. See what’s there.” I said brightly.

He paused for a moment, frowned slightly, and replied with a single word. “Why?”

I reluctantly admit to understanding his confusion. Though Polaroid’s founder, Dr. Land, held science and engineering in the utmost esteem and was always happy to say that Polaroid lived “between Harvard and MIT,” the original Polaroid company’s presence in Cambridge is long gone. Even before their (first) bankruptcy in 2001, Polaroid had moved much of their operation to towns far from the city center, or, even worse for the local workers who built the company, overseas. The Polaroid of today has no true relation to the Polaroid of the Cambridge years.

Still, remnants of the old Polaroid have lingered here and there.

I used to drive past a building every few days, and above its loading dock was pinned a sign, POLAROID LOADING DOCK. That building was demolished last year. A restaurant on Mass Ave displays a framed photo of Land sitting crookedly at one end of the bar. The MIT Museum holds an extensive collection of Polaroid archives, documents, and more. And of course, Edwin Land Boulevard has not yet been renamed.

I expected that if any place in Cambridge would have a fair amount of interesting Polaroid relics still kicking around, it would be the gorgeous building that they once called headquarters. And as fate would have it, I’d just been sent the Polaroid I-2, the new Polaroid company’s newest film camera. I needed sample shots for my review. A walk down the Charles River couldn’t hurt that need, and if the old Polaroid HQ happened to offer a few interesting shots or a trip to a secret underground Polaroid history warehouse, all the better.

But the past has a way of disappearing.

As I approached the squat, beautiful building, I framed a few photos and pressed the shutter release of the newest Polaroid camera. Out came the frame, which I tucked neatly into my pocket without looking.

The pale, white bricks of Polaroid’s former throne are interspersed with glass block and tightly framed windows, giving the building a rich texture, striking lines, and dramatic shadows in the autumn sun. A central tower rises amidst two slightly lower wings, and from out this tower projects a prominent, geometric cylinder of windows. Above this is an analog clock (installed during Polaroid’s ownership), and above this clock is a blank space which once boasted a massive, black-lettered POLAROID sign (gone, now).

The building today is tenanted and operational as an office, so I was respectful and a bit hesitant to enter, but a sign on the front door happily directed visitors to the back entrance, whereupon entering I found a lobby empty of any and all human presence, and a lonely reception desk. I spoke “Hello?” into the air five or six times, received no reply, and twirled in place underwhelmed. I sat in the comfortable lobby and waited, but no one appeared.

A set of stairs rose up on one side of the lobby, so up I went, announcing myself on every landing, optimistically seeking someone, anyone, who might be happy to chat about the building’s earlier tenants. I paused on each story to look out through that cylindrical array of windows. With each story I was gifted a better view of the flowing Charles River, the crisp golden leaves hanging in the trees, the brilliant blue sky, all lovely, persistent elements which Polaroid employees and executives and chemists and engineers must once have looked upon (and photographed?) from these very spots.

I hesitated through the halls of the building.

“Hello?” I called into the hushed places. “Hello? Is anyone here?”

But nobody answered, and I saw no one. I took a few pictures with the new Polaroid camera. It whirred loudly in the quiet, and I was hopeful that someone might come to see just what was making this strange noise, that I might announce myself and apologize for the intrusion, but to ask if anyone knew or cared about the building’s illustrious past. But no one came. No one was there. I felt odd and out of place. I touched nothing, drifted through, continuously speaking “Hello?” to nobody.

I climbed the last of the stairs to find a small utility space at the building’s highest level. Packed densely into this place, which was essentially an open-air closet for those who maintain the building, I saw a ladder, an access hatch, toolboxes, some mechanical panels that looked important. There were spare office chairs and shelving and desks and lamps being stored under a thin film of dust, the static necessities of a working building.

It’s here that I found the only sign that Polaroid had ever existed. An actual sign. A simple rectangle of thin plastic, likely survived from the days when Polaroid owned the place. It wasn’t even affixed to the wall, nor to a signpost or a hook. It simply sat on the floor, propped without care or ceremony against the baseboard of the wall.


A sign for the person who maintains the clock.

Fair enough. Time goes on. It must, and it does. In more ways than one.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Wonderful story, and the prints are really good!

  • Polaroid was the Apple of its day. It is sad there isn’t more of a monument to their existence there.

  • I lived right across the bridge in Boston for years, and had occasion to visit that building. Years later I moved to Vermont and made friends with a wonderful woman who worked there for her entire career. After they went under all her retirement savings were worthless, it was all in Polaroid stock. That may have been why your friend wasn’t very enthusiastic.

    • Yeah, the bankruptcy was a total farce, from what I’ve been told. The workers’ pensions were wiped out and the executives received multi-million dollar bonuses and incentive packages simply to stay with the dying company. Even though, let’s not forget, it was the executives and their poor steering of the ship which ended up sinking the company in the first place… typical.

  • Great article, ghost office block, even the receptionist was working from home that day.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio