Lois Lilley Howe – a female trailblazer in architecture, born and raised in Cambridge. (Photo: MIT Museum)

Lois Lilley Howe (1864-1964) was born and raised in Cambridge. She was a trailblazer, one of the first women to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s architectural program, the organizer of the only all-woman architectural firm in Boston in the early 20th century and the first woman elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

“I was born in a college town where life was as simple as life in a village. The professors and instructors in the college were all friends. Very few people had horses and carriages; the horse cars were sufficiently convenient,” wrote Howe in the Cambridge Historical Society’s Proceedings, Volume 34, pages 59-76. “The house where I was born was old-fashioned, with very little essential so-called modern plumbing.”

As a little girl, Howe was fascinated by construction of Harvard’s Memorial Hall and Sanders Theatre across the street from her home; architects and workers on the site called her “the little superintendent” because, in her own words, “while the theater was being built I clambered all over it.”

Later, Howe’s fascination led her to study architecture at MIT, although professors tried to dissuade her from the field. “I was told that … as a woman I could not be an architect. Mr. Walker said I should have to learn to swear, and that most of the time I should think my occupation tedious,” Howe said, referring to institute professor and “arts and crafts” style architect C. Howard Walker.

With diploma in hand, Howe got to work establishing a name for herself. She started as a drafter in an architectural firm in the 1890s, and by 1900 she’d founded her own firm in Boston – believed to have been the first U.S. architecture firm founded by a woman.

In these first years of designing, her family and social connections were of great help in establishing her practice, and the first few Lois L. Howe designs were for West Cambridge homes. With the practice lasting for nearly 40 years, led by Howe and later associates Eleanor Manning and Mary Almy, her work went on to permeate the city of Cambridge until Howe’s retirement in 1937. Howe had opportunities to spearhead projects that ranged from original designs to renovations, and her projects kept women’s needs in mind for the rapidly expanding female professional class of the early 20th century.

A longtime resident of Appleton Street in Cambridge, she died in 1964, months shy of her 100th birthday.

To explore our collection of Lois Lilley Howe history and view all her Cambridge buildings, visit the Cambridge Historical Society website.

About the Cambridge Historical Society 

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.


Marieke Van Damme is executive director of the Cambridge Historical Society.

This post was corrected Jan. 19, 2021, to remove an incorrect reference to one of the businesses being black-owned.

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