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Lowell Stories: Women's History

Lydia Lee Smith Howard (January 18, 1915 - November 28, 1998)

“Shall these relics of early Lowell be razed or saved for posterity?” asked Lydia Howard in a full-page article published in the Lowell Sun in 1966. A few grappled with the prospect of saving some of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company housing in the mid-1960s, but rehabilitating old red brick buildings that were being used as tenements and lodging houses was a very new concept and impossible for many to imagine.

Lydia Lee Smith was born on January 18, 1915, in Ilion, New York, daughter of Burley Smith and Margaret Lawrence Merry. After Lydia graduated from Vassar College and Woodbury Fiske Howard (1905-1962) graduated from Harvard Law School they married in Ilion on October 25, 1935. They move to Woodbury’s home in Lowell, where he was in law practice with Henry Archin and Lydia was a teacher in the Lowell public schools. They were both active in Republican politics.

Image #1: Merrimack Manufacturing Company, Dutton Street Boardinghouse before Demolition, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

On a rainy election day in November 1942, with a 70 percent turnout, voters (16,477-14,135) adopt the Plan E government. Under Plan E, daily city business is overseen by a City Manager, hired by the nine-member City Council. The mayor is selected from among the councilors, and chairs the seven-member School Committee. The first Plan E mayor was Woodbury Howard, who led the charge to change the city government. Lydia was chair of the Republican City Committee.

In the 1960s, Lowell Redevelopment Authority, chaired by Homer Bourgeois (President of the Lowell Union National Bank) initiated a Federal Urban Renewal project which would demolish Lowell's Little Canada neighborhood, Merrimack Manufacturing Company, and the Dutton Street Boardinghouses. A preservation committee chaired by Lydia Howard with several of Lowell Technological Institute faculty members M. Brendan Fleming, Ernie James, Richard Olney, and Joseph V. Kopycinski worked tirelessly to save the old row house built in 1845. With support from Clemmie Costello, editor of the Lowell Sun, Boston developers, and preservation architects, the committee came close to implementing an effective plan to preserve and develop the red brick Dutton Street Boardinghouses. According to Lydia, last minute pressure on the developers by Bourgeois ended their efforts.

Image #2: Merrimack Manufacturing Company, Dutton Street Boardinghouse during Demolition, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Lydia continued as an iconic cultural and preservation leader as president of the Whistler House Museum of Art, and the Lowell Museum, spokesperson and advocate for the Lowell National Historical Park, and Trustee of the Lowell Public Library, spearheading the restoration of Memorial Hall. She died November 28, 1998 in Brentwood, New Hampshire near the home of her daughter and son-in-law Anne and Martin Frelermuth.

Tribute from a Friend: “Lydia Howard – charming, tough, politically skilled, committed, hard-working, generous, pulled no punches to get towards her goal of what was best for the community, her institutions, her culture and the people – she braved the Congress and Sun Editor Clement Costello! She was a warm, gracious and loyal friend.”

P.S. When I first arrived in Lowell, I was inspired by this woman and grateful for her vision and leadership regarding Lowell's historic preservation movement, before Model Cities (1968-1972), before Gordon Marker, before Pat Mogan, and before Paul E. Tsongas. 

-Martha Mayo