The building harkens back to Cambridge's days as a center for car manufacturing, detailed in Chaim Rosenberg's fascinating Goods for Sale, a 2007 book on the Massachusetts Industrial Age. According to Rosenberg, 640 Memorial was one of thirty plants that Henry Ford built to mass produce his Model T at the dawn of the 20th century. By 1926, the plant was already too small to assemble cars and trucks, so a larger factory was built at Assembly Square (now closed).
MIT acquired the building in 1956. In the years since, it was used first by the Polaroid company, and more recently, bustling with the active and growing biotech industry. Along with a lot of other Research and Development space in the city, it has been difficult to find and keep tenants in the current economy. In response, the MIT Investment Management Co. (the MIT group that manages the Institute's income-producing and tax-paying commercial properties) is now planning a renovation and addition to the property, as seen in the before/after images below.
At a public meeting with the neighborhood, officials from MIT explained that the addition would be built over part of what is parking lot now, and would not affect the curved facade that faces Memorial Drive, or the one-story portion of the building on Brookline Street. It would primarily be visible from the north, along Waverly Drive. MIT has been encouraged at this early stage by the City's consultants to use a modern, glass curtain-wall facade, to distinguish the addition from the historic structure. In any case, it may be awhile before there's any activity on the site, as MIT wants to identify a firm to occupy the full building so that it can tailor the build out for a specific tenant.
Image courtesy of the MIT Investment Co.