History

Welcome to Lowell House

Welcome to the rich history of Lowell House, one of the twelve undergraduate houses at Harvard University. We are a community of over 500 people: 400 undergraduate students, about 25 resident tutors and scholars drawn from Harvard’s graduate and professional schools, and over 75 affiliated faculty and visiting scholars.

History

Several pages on the Lowell website contain information regarding the history of the House and its set of Russian bells:

• See below for an overview of the founding and construction of the House, a chronology of its Masters, and notes on the members of the Lowell family and on some of the House traditions.

• Our House Archivist, Dr. Charles U. Lowe ’42, has written two detailed historical essays: How Harvard Acquired the Land on which Lowell House Was Built and How Did the Russian Bells Get to Lowell House? 

• Dr. Lowe has also collected and transcribed a substantial volume of documents from the Harvard Archives pertaining to the establishment of Lowell House, available here as The History of Lowell House.

• For an early history of the Lowell House bells, read The Lowell House Bells, an essay by Mason Hammond ’25, the first Senior Tutor of Lowell House and later the Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature

Overview

Lowell House cost a mere $3,620,000 to construct in 1930 and was one of the first two Houses established by the gift of Edward Harkness. Our benefactor’s colorful portrait hangs in the Dining Hall. Built by the firm of Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch, and Abbot, our neo-Georgian design won the Harleston Parker architectural medal in 1935. Ours is usually considered a premier example of the Harvard House form. Dr. Charles U. Lowe, M.D., a member of the Lowell House Senior Common Room, and Lowell House historian, has written a history of how Harvard acquired the land on which Lowell House was built.

The House was named for the Lowell family, closely identified with Harvard since John Lowell graduated in 1721. President Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1909-1933) instituted the House system, tutorials, the concentration system and reading period. His bust, and that of poet James Russell Lowell, are in the main courtyard. In the Dining Hall are portraits of President Lowell and his wife; his sister Amy Lowell (Pulitzer prize winning poet, and a lover of scandal credited with introducing D. H. Lawrence to America); his brother Percival Lowell (the astronomer who spearheaded the search for the planet Pluto); and his grandfather John Amory Lowell (a fellow of Harvard College for forty years).

The current Masters, Diana Eck and Dorothy Austin, are only the fifth Masters in nearly 70 years. Lowell’s first decade was overseen by Julian Lowell Coolidge, a distinguished mathematician who gained notoriety as the zealous head of the Boston Watch and Ward Society. It was Coolidge who instituted the traditional Monday-night high table. High table, incidentally, was originally lampooned by the Crimson as a “forced and misplaced institution” and “grotesquely ridiculous.” One of the first tutors, the late historian Elliott Perkins, was Master from 1942 to 1963. Classical scholar Zeph Stewart was the third Master. William and Mary Lee Bossert moved into Masters’ lodging in 1975, and left in 1999 after 23 years of service to the Lowell community.

The word “tradition” is very Lowellian indeed. The Lowell House opera, High Tables and the spring performance of the 1812 overture were institutionalized by the first decade. Few students fail to attend the famous five o’clock Thursday Teas in the Masters’ Residence or the one o’clock Sunday ringing of the Russian Bells. The bells are also rung for high tables, special dinners, New Year’s Eve, and, of course, the winning of football games. They were tolled formally for the College anniversary in 1986. A history of these musical wonders is available in the Library.

An annual winter holiday dinner, the sophomore and the senior dinners, and the Roundtable dinners and faculty dinners are also current Lowell House traditions. Various language tables and special interest tables are scheduled throughout the year. We have a healthy portion of Phi Beta Kappas, an active musical society, and ever-escalating intramural participation.