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 600 people: 400 undergraduate students, 20 resident tutors and scholars drawn from Harvard’s graduate and professional schools, and over 200 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 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 Faculty Deans, David Laibson and Nina Zipser, are the sixth set of Lowell House leaders in ninety 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 and began the habit of taking tea with students. One of the first resident tutors in Lowell House, the late historian Elliott Perkins, was master from 1942 to 1963 and was considered deeply influential to generations of Lowell House graduates. Classics scholar Zeph Stewart was the third master, and was responsible for evolving Lowell House into co-educational living as well as expanding literary and poemical traditions along with his wife and associate master, Diana Stewart.  Computer scientist, aviator, and polymath William Bossert moved into Lowell House in 1975 along with his wife Mary Lee, an assiduous and enterprising host. During the Bossert’s twenty-three year tenure the weekly teas, High Tables, and opera galas blossomed into the epic experiences we know today. Under the leadership of Comparative Religion professor Diana Eck and the Rev. Dorothy Austin, the first same-sex couple appointed masters of a Harvard House in 1998, these rituals of music and hospitality flourished, engendering new and enduring traditions like the annual spring Speeches project and the May Day Waltz.

The word “tradition” is very Lowellian, indeed. The Lowell House Opera  is the longest continually-running opera company in New England.  Lowell High Tables, and the pick-up playing of Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture in the courtyard, were institutionalized in the first decade of Lowell House's life and continue to this day.  It can certainly be said that few students ever fail to attend the famous Thursday Tea in the Faculty Deans' residence. Decades of alumni/ae continue to return on Thursdays out of habit, and knowing they can always meet at Tea.  Any Sunday at one o’clock you can hear the peals of our Russian Bells in song.  Each year, when the sun comes up on May Day, Lowellians waltz on the Weeks Bridge with champagne; when the sun goes down that day we read poems at the annual May Day Poetry Reading.   Every autumn brings Glowell Rave Party, every winter brings the Yule Ball, and every spring brings the Lowell Bacchanalia.  In between are myriad faculty dinners, Trivia Nights, Speeches, Stein Clubs, and the warmth of the most established and convivial House on Harvard's campus.