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Boston Society of Architects

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Designing women

Uncovering the history of women in the Arts and Crafts movement

LOST Sep-Oct 2019

Artsand Crafts Maureen Meister 1

Lois L. Howe, Skyfield, Jones house, Harrisville, NH 1916.

Photo by David Feigenbaum

Day after day in the fall of 2009, I visited the Boston Public Library, cranking through rolls of microfilm, looking for the architects who would be featured in my next book. My plan was to identify the architect-leaders in Boston’s Arts and Crafts movement, which coalesced at the end of the 19th century. Much to my surprise, one of the architects who emerged was a woman—Lois Lilley Howe. Who was she? And why didn’t I know about her? I recently pulled an old AIA Guide to Boston from my bookshelf and saw that Howe wasn’t referenced in it. I checked Built in Boston, City and Suburb by Douglass Shand-Tucci. He mentioned Howe but didn’t discuss her work. Why wasn’t she worthy of more than a few passing words?

Portrait of Lois L. Howe.
Courtesy of MIT Museum

What I had been examining at the library were the records—reports, meeting minutes, and correspondence—of the Society of Arts and Crafts, established in Boston in 1897. Through my teaching and writing about Boston architecture, I was well acquainted with several of the organization’s prominent figures, including Herbert Langford Warren, founder of the architecture program at Harvard; Ralph Adams Cram, designer of Gothic Revival churches and prolific author; and Charles D. Maginnis, expert on churches and campus buildings commissioned by Catholic clients. Howe served alongside these men on the Society’s governing council and committees.

I learned that she was a native of Cambridge who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and opened a practice in Boston, eventually taking on two female architects as business partners. In 2014, my book Arts & Crafts Architecture: History and Heritage in New England was published, and Howe was among the architects I highlighted.

One reason we’re now curious about Howe is that she ranks among the country’s first formally educated and active female architects. Yet from the 19th century through the first three quarters of the 20th century, historians focused on heroic figures and buildings, meaning male architects and their work. Women in the field typically were hired for small-scale residential and institutional projects—buildings that didn’t find their way into the most widely read books. In the late 1970s, when I took my first course on the history of American architecture, I read Vincent Scully’s American Architecture and Urbanism. Two female architects made brief appearances: Marion Mahony was named but not discussed, and Denise Scott Brown was credited in a caption along with Robert Venturi and John Rauch. Since then, women have taken the lead in writing about female architects. In 1990, Doris Cole and Karen Cord Taylor published a book about Howe and her partners, and in 2008, Sarah Allaback included Howe in The First American Women Architects. Thus Howe, once lost, was found.

Lois L. Howe, Cornish house, Cambridge, MA 1916
Photo by David Feigenbaum

Howe’s leadership in New England’s Arts and Crafts movement also makes her noteworthy; yet the literature on the Arts and Crafts movement in American architecture has given scant attention to Boston’s contribution, something I addressed in a monograph on Langford Warren published in 2003. As for why our region’s role was overlooked, my theory is that the neglect was due to a bias on the part of 20th-century historians with a Modernist bent. They gravitated to Frank Lloyd Wright’s early buildings and to simple Craftsman bungalows. For historians writing about the rise of Modernism, placing Boston’s Arts and Crafts architecture in the narrative was problematic and perhaps distasteful. Boston architects promoted revival styles—in particular the Gothic and Colonial revivals—embellished by their craftsmen colleagues.

In fact, architects leading the Boston Society were well versed in Arts and Crafts theories emerging in England. They were in close contact with their English counterparts and aligned with their design ideals. The English architects admired the social order, buildings, and craftsmanship of the Middle Ages. Responding to John Ruskin and William Morris, English architects and craftsmen formed the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and sponsored their first show in 1888. Nine years later, Boston architects and craftsmen organized their own Arts and Crafts exhibition while the Boston Architectural Club presented an accompanying show. In Boston, the Arts and Crafts movement and architecture were intermingled.

In 1902, Howe joined the Society of Arts and Crafts, and by 1904, she was designated a “Master,” a distinction given to a select few. As a designer, she shared the view of her associates that our region’s colonial and federal periods should be considered comparable to England’s Middle Ages. In 1916, Howe turned to the 17th-century buildings of New England as the basis for the dark brown, gabled house of Louis C. Cornish, believed to be the first dwelling of this type in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That same year, she was the architect for Skyfield in Harrisville, New Hampshire, a broad brick pile with echoes of Christopher Wren, who was inspiring England’s Arts and Crafts architects at the time.

Along with her Boston colleagues, Howe embraced historic preservation. In so doing, the architects were following the example set by Morris in 1877 when he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In 1912, Howe helped raise the funds to save the Cooper-Frost-Austin house in Cambridge, acquired by the newly formed Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, today’s Historic New England. In her practice, Howe rebuilt colonial and federal houses as residences and institutional buildings. For example, she developed the scheme to adapt the 1761 John Ball house in Concord, Massachusetts, for the Concord Art Association. The house was reconstructed between 1922 and 1923 and is known today as the Concord Center for the Visual Arts.

Cooper-Frost-Austin House, Cambridge
Courtesy of Historic New England

Other women affiliated with Boston’s Society of Arts and Crafts are now receiving attention. One of them, Sarah Wyman Whitman, a stained-glass artist and interior decorator, designed windows for Harvard’s Memorial Hall and Schlesinger Library. Most female members, however, were not involved with architecture, focusing instead on small products. Female metalworkers designed and made jewelry, serving pieces, and boxes, many with medieval and colonial references—the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (on view through March 2020).

Of the various regions across the country where architects responded to the Arts and Crafts movement, California has received the most study, and San Francisco’s Julia Morgan has achieved a degree of fame. Her reputation owes much to the fact that she designed the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, an opulent estate blending Spanish and Mediterranean styles, which has been open to the public since 1958. Marion Mahony, associated with Wright and other Chicago architects, garnered attention at a relatively early date. They were the subject of The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries by H. Allen Brooks, published in 1972. Today Mahony is recognized as the first licensed female architect in Illinois.

In the Southwest, Mary Colter has developed a following. Her interiors for buildings in Arizona and New Mexico evoke Native American art—an Arts and Crafts response to the regional locale. A book from 1980 called attention to her, and other books have since been issued. In 2018, a well-documented study by Fred Shaw discredited her claims to have been an architect, leaving historians to reconsider her as an interior decorator—lost, found, and found out?

San Diego architect Hazel Wood Waterman, who trained under Irving Gill, was the subject of a 1987 monograph by Sally Bullard Thornton published by the San Diego Historical Society. Like Howe, Waterman devoted her career to residential projects. She is best known, however, for reconstructing the Casa de Estudillo, an 1827 Spanish Colonial adobe house in San Diego that opened as a tourist attraction in 1910. Catherine W. Zipf included Waterman in Professional Pursuits: Women and the American Arts and Crafts Movement, 2007, which explores how women were drawn to the movement’s emphasis on local context, the home environment, and social reform.

In 2015, the Santa Barbara Historical Society published a book by Pamela Skewes-Cox and Robert Sweeney on Santa Barbara’s James Osborne Craig and Mary McLaughlin Craig. After James died in 1922, his widow, Mary, carried on the practice, designing Spanish Colonial Revival houses with the assistance of licensed architects.

When compared with other American women who were practicing architecture and guided by an Arts and Crafts ethos, Howe is very much like them. She viewed local building traditions as the source for her designs. She was hired by clients who valued her expertise in residential work. And she welcomed commissions involving the restoration and reuse of historic structures. In the future, regional studies, many supported by historical societies, will no doubt expand our knowledge of the women who designed Arts and Crafts buildings. So will research for preservation projects, in particular houses and small institutional buildings. We can expect to learn more about the contributions of these women, whose names are now lost but whose identities are documented—whether on microfilm, in archives, or in digitized records—and ready to be recovered.

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