Lois Lilley Howe (1864–1964) was the founding member of Howe, Manning and Almy, Boston’s first all-female architecture partnership, and only the second such practice in the United States. The success of the firm was due in great part to the perseverance of Lois Lilley Howe, who founded the office in the 1890s. In 1931, she was the first woman elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
Early Life and Education
Born in 1864 to Dr. Estes and Lois Lilly White Howe, Howe grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she lived her entire life. Among her earliest recollections was clambering around a construction site near her home, where the workers called her “the little superintendent.” Despite this fascination with construction, she was initially discouraged from entering the field. In 1940, she wrote, “Always interested in houses, I had wanted to be an architect but had been suppressed by my pastors and masters on the ground that I could not be an architect because I was a woman.”11“Lois Lilley Howe—M.I.T. ’90,” recollections written in 1940 for fifty-year class reunion (which she was unable to attend). Records of Howe, Manning & Almy, Series 3, Box 4, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
When her father died in 1887 after suffering financial losses from his real estate speculations during the recession of the 1870s, Howe’s mother sold the home where they had been living and constructed a new house for the family. The old house had a straight staircase which the new owner, Mrs. Francis G. Peabody, sister-in-law to the architect Robert Swain Peabody, wanted to remodel. Howe was able to propose a successful solution even after Robert Peabody declared that it would be impossible to redesign the stair. This experience and the time spent on the construction site of the new house, designed by Cabot and Chandler, contributed to her decision to pursue architecture as a course of study.
After graduating from Cambridge High School, Howe spent four years (1882–1886) at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston studying drawing and design rather than taking classes at the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), as most of her classmates had done. In 1888, Howe entered the two-year program in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was the only woman in a class of sixty-six and only one of two women in the school. While there, she helped found MIT’s first women’s student group, Eta Sigma Mu, which later became the sorority Cleofan.22“Lois Lilley Howe—Biographical Note,” Records of Howe, Manning & Almy. In 1890, she received her diploma, the same year that Sophia Hayden also graduated from the four-year program.33Sophia Hayden was only the second woman to graduate from the four-year program at MIT. The first, according to an announcement of Hayden and Howe’s prizes for the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair, was a Miss Rockfellow, who graduated in 1888. “Two Successful Girls,” March 26, 1891, Records of Howe, Manning & Almy, Series 3, Box 1. After finishing at MIT, an “interested friend” helped her find employment in the office of Allen and Kenway, where she worked as a draftsman from 1890 to 1892.44“Lois Lilley Howe—M.I.T. ’90,” Records of Howe, Manning & Almy. According to Gail Morse, this person was likely to be either Chandler or Robert Swain Peabody. Gail Morse, “‘The Firm’: A Study of the First Women’s Architectural Firm in Boston: Howe, Manning and Almy,” B.A. thesis, Boston University, 1976, accessed August 6, 2013, http://open.bu.edu/xmlui/handle/2144/6073.
When the Board of Lady Managers for the Women’s Building at the World’s Fair in Chicago launched a competition in 1891 for the building, Robert Peabody, a lifelong supporter of Howe, encouraged her to enter a design.55“Lois Lilley Howe—M.I.T. ’90,” Records of Howe, Manning & Almy. The first prize was awarded to her friend and classmate Sophia Hayden, and Howe received $500 for second prize. This money allowed her to travel in Europe with her mother and sister for eighteen months, starting in July 1892. She returned to the United States in October 1893; she then visited the Chicago Exposition, and soon obtained her first commission, the design of a house for a recently married friend.66Morse, 36.
Howe came from an old and prosperous Cambridge family, and her connections helped her to secure work. A woman architect was more likely to receive commissions from friends and family members than from strangers, especially early in her career.77Morse, 37. Morse suggests that Howe might have worked part-time as a librarian for MIT’s architecture department, 36. The first few years of her practice were a struggle, and it is possible that she supplemented her practice by other work. By 1900, however, Howe had established her firm on Tremont Street in Boston and she was soon busy with commissions for renovations and new houses.
During the early part of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for women practicing architecture to specialize in residential work. Stereotypes about women and their close association with the domestic sphere limited their options. While these attitudes were a disadvantage for obtaining other types of projects, they were also seen by Howe and her partners as conferring an advantage in obtaining domestic commissions. An unidentified newspaper clipping about the firm reported that their slogan was “the woman’s touch in architecture.”88“Lady Architects Scorn ‘He’ Houses,” circa 1936, Records of Howe, Manning & Almy, Series 1A, Box 1.
In her over forty years of practice, Howe built a reputation for thoughtful design and well-constructed buildings. During her early career, she mostly designed and renovated large houses for wealthy families with servants, most of which were in Massachusetts. From 1890 to the 1920s, Revivalist architecture was popular among New England’s upper classes. Howe mastered the Colonial Revival and Georgian Revival styles through careful research. During her travels around the region, she took numerous photographs and made measured drawings of buildings and architectural details.99Many of her photographs are archived at the Cambridge Historical Society, http://www.cambridgehistory.org/library/howe. Some of these drawings were later published in her and Constantine Fuller’s Details from Old New England Houses (1913).1010Lois Lilley Howe and Constance Fuller, Details from Old New England Houses (New York: Architectural Book Publishing Co., 1913).
In 1901, Peabody nominated Howe to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and she was made a member, the second woman after Louise Blanchard Bethune. It is possible that Howe was elected to the AIA because her first name, Lois, was confused for Louis.1111Sarah Allaback, “Howe, Lois Lilley (1864–1964),” The First American Women Architects (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 104. Her election to the AIA was particularly notable in Boston at the time, where women were not allowed to be members of the Boston Society of Architects, a requirement for AIA membership. Howe was also a trailblazer when she became a Fellow of the AIA in 1931, the first woman to be elected to this honor.1212Louise Blanchard Bethune was the first Fellow of the AIA, an automatic appointment when the Western Association of Architects, of which she was a member, was absorbed by the AIA in 1889. “The AIA. Historical Directory of American Architects.” http://public.aia.org/sites/hdoaa/wiki/.
Howe often hired female graduates from MIT to work as draftswomen in the office. By 1913 her practice had grown enough for her to ask one of those graduates working for her, Eleanor Manning, to become a partner. Manning brought to the firm a concern for public housing and urban planning. With her addition to the practice and a change in demand following World War I, the firm began focusing on more modest homes and housing complexes. In 1913, the partners contributed a design to McCall magazine’s Small House Series, and later published small house plans in House Beautiful and Architecture.1313“Portfolio of Small Houses,” House Beautiful (May 1929): portfolio 1. In 1924, the town planner John Nolen asked Howe and Manning to be involved in the design of Denny Place in a new planned community, Mariemont, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati. The firm was one of twenty-six firms hired to build houses in the new community for working-class families. In the “English”-style cottages and two-family houses that Howe and Manning designed, they used local stone, which was economical and helped the houses blend into the landscape, an aspect Nolen emphasized in the master plan.1414For more about the project in Mariemont, Ohio, see Morse, 60–63. Mariemont was published in Architecture in 1926.1515“Mariemont—A New Town,” Architecture 54 (September 1926): 247–78
The firm was doing so well that Howe and Manning asked Mary Almy to join the practice by 1926. Like Howe, Almy came from an old Cambridge family, and her connections brought many commissions to the firm. These included a house for Almy’s younger brother, Charles, and one for her parents. The Charles Almy, Jr. House received attention in the press both for its design and because it became the temporary home of Governor Joseph B. Ely.1616“Three Women Designed House in Which Gov. Ely Will Live,” unidentified newspaper article, N.D. Records of Howe, Manning & Almy Series 1A, Box 1. The Charles Almy Jr. House was also published in “Portfolio of Small Houses,” House Beautiful (May 1929): portfolio 1. The firm continued to design in the Colonial and Georgian Revival styles but also added Cape Cod to their repertoire of styles. The same year that Almy joined the firm, they won a nationwide competition for a Cape Cod house, sponsored by the Cape Cod Real Estate Board. The office remained busy until the early 1930s, when the Depression made it harder for them to find work.
All three partners participated in various professional associations related to their work. Howe was on the planning committee of The Architect’s Small House Service Bureau and the housing committees for MIT’s Women’s Association and the Business Women’s Club of Boston. She was also involved with the Boston Society of The Architect’s Small House Service Bureau, and the AIA’s Committee on Small Houses. She continued to be interested in housing after her retirement, and she joined the Board of Directors of the Housing Association of Metropolitan Boston.
By the time Howe, Manning, and Almy disbanded in 1937—Howe was seventy-three at the time—they had completed over four hundred projects.1717For a list of projects, see Doris Cole and Karen Cord Taylor, The Lady Architects: Lois Lilley Howe, Eleanor Manning and Mary Almy, 1893–1937 (New York: Midmarch Arts, 1990). When the firm of Howe, Manning and Almy sent out a notice announcing the end of their partnership on September 1, 1937, William Emerson (1873–1957), dean of Architecture at MIT, wrote to the partners:
You three have made history for our profession, and the passing of Howe, Manning and Almy as a firm leaves a gap in our numbers that can scarcely be filled . . . . Each of you in your different ways and in different degrees have given other women hope and confidence. You have blazed a path which is the easier for them to follow, built a reputation and set a standard that they may well strive to emulate.1818Letter to Howe, Manning and Almy from William Emerson, September 5, 1937. Records of Howe, Manning & Almy, Inc., and the Papers of Lois L. Howe, Eleanor Manning O’Connor, and Mary Almy, MC 9, Series 1A, Box 1, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Mass..
Howe lived for another twenty-seven years. Although she never married or had children, she was very active in the Cambridge and Boston communities, and she continued to participate in local associations after retiring, such as the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts and with the Cambridge Historical Society.1919Morse, 68. Howe died in 1964, less than two weeks before her hundredth birthday.