The Transformation from House to Gallery
by Boston’s First Female Architect
by Kara Fossy, Archives & Collections, Concord Center for the Visual Arts
(Published in the Concord Journal, November 5, 2015)
“You don’t get me to work with no woman architect” was the purported initial response of the carpenter who was tasked with turning a Colonial house on Lexington Road into a spacious gallery using the designs of Lois Lilley Howe, one of the first professionally trained female architects in Massachusetts.
Lois Lilley Howe, born in Cambridge in 1864, studied design at the Museum of Fine Arts School before completing a two year architecture program at MIT in 1890. In a photograph of the architecture department taken that year, Lois stands out as the only woman in a class full of men. Howe took on early work for friends and family before partnering to start a firm in 1913 that would ultimately become known as Howe, Manning, and Almy: Boston’s first women’s architectural firm.
Howe, and the other women in her firm, went on to design private and public buildings around New England in a style that both harkened to old Yankee ideals and incorporated the most contemporary tastes. Howe retained a great interest in historic architecture and even published a book with another MIT graduate entitled “Details of Old New England Houses” which contained carefully measured and drawn architectural details like paneling, railings, and mantels from existing historic structures.
As with many of Howe’s projects, the renovation of the 18th century Jonathan Ball House that would become “Concord Art Centre” on Lexington Road was performed with a thoughtful blending of original colonial details with modern additions to transform certain spaces. Concord Art Association, formed in 1917 by Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, had held its annual exhibitions in the Town Hall. Then in 1922, Roberts purchased the Ball House on Lexington Road and employed Howe to redesign the interior of the building to be suitable for an art gallery. MORE [LINK to remaining text]
Howe and her firm were known for ‘renovising’ (a term coined by one of her partners): renovating and revising outdated buildings. Howe was careful to reuse any materials that were salvageable and to look at each building with respect for its original design. Her work on the Ball House was no exception. Howe changed very little in the first floor of the house. In fact, she took care to make sure the woodwork in the lower rooms was preserved and that the original hardware on the doors remained.
While most of the first floor was left undisturbed, Howe completely transformed the upper floor. A large octagonal gallery on the second floor was created by removing room partitions and disassembling part of a substantial central chimney. The most impressive part of the design was a large grid of windows on the roof to allow for a top-lighted gallery. This was achieved by removing the attic entirely. The skylights were installed on the backside of the roof and therefore remained invisible to passers-by on the street, preserving the colonial façade of the house. A portion of the large chimney, too, was rebuilt above the roofline for authenticity.
Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts’ vision for an art center in the heart of historic Concord came to fruition through the thoughtful design of Lois Lilley Howe who managed to create an unexpected space without disturbing the historic integrity of a house that has stood on Lexington Road for over 250 years. The carpenter who originally questioned Howe’s work is said to have admitted after the renovation was complete: “architecture is quite a proper profession for a woman after all.”