Lois Lilley Howe’s youth living in Cambridge set the course for her career in architecture. Born into a family with deep roots in Cambridge, Howe came of age at a time of great growth and change in Cambridge, especially around Harvard Square. Howe’s father Estes, a Cambridge-raised and Harvard-educated doctor, returned home to Cambridge from Ohio in the 1850s and became the treasurer for the Cambridge Gas Company. The expansion of gas light into the streets and businesses of Harvard Square transformed the Square from a sleepy “village” into a hub of commercial activity and placed the Howes near the center of a social scene full of artists, scientists, Harvard professors, and Abolitionist activists.
From her family home, on what is now the site of the Harvard Science Center, Howe wandered far and wide across the rapidly-changing built landscape of Harvard Square, observing the construction and renovation of buildings both in and outside the Harvard campus. Right across the street from her home, Harvard’s Memorial Hall and Sanders Theatre was being built; architects and workmen on the site called her “the little superintendent” because, in Howe’s words, “while the theatre was being built I clambered all over it.” (Proceedings Vol. 34 p. 63) Her memories of these years were sharp well into her later life. In her speeches to the Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) as late as the 1950s when she was nearly ninety years old, she painted a vivid portrait of Harvard Square of her youth, clearly recalling the families who ran local businesses and the social customs of Cambridge of eight decades earlier.