Treasured Maps: Rosalind Howe '28

By Ronald D. Patkus

In a late October day in 1978, Rosalind Howe sat down with a journalist to discuss her life and career as an artist and architectural cartographer. When asked about her artistic calling, she gave a revealing response: "Essentially I’m a recorder," she stated. "I want to preserve places on paper."

Looking back, it is not surprising that Howe carved out a career that combined art, architecture, and history. Born in 1907 in Bristol, Rhode Island, she was the daughter of Mary Locke, an antiques dealer, and Wallis Howe, a Providence architect. From an early age she was fascinated by houses and began to draw them whenever possible, often using pencils from her father’s drawing board. Though she received no formal training in art, family influences in that subject were strong (a brother also became an architect).

When Howe came to Vassar in 1924 her talents were apparent. She was elected president of the sophomore class and served as art director of the Junior Party. She also studied art, and her skill in this area was immediately recognized. In fact, one of her first commissions as an artist came from her alma mater when she was asked to produce a map of the Vassar campus. The result was "An Anachronistic Topography of Vassar Female College and Its Environs," which offered a playful and affectionate view of the school

An Anachronistic Topography of Vassar Female College and Its Environs
An Anachronistic Topography of Vassar Female College and Its Environs
landscape just prior to the Great Depression. The map reveals elements of what would become the artist’s unique style.

After graduation, Howe married the Rev. Philemon Sturges and lived in Oregon for a few years, before returning to New England; she lived in Massachusetts until 1945. Subsequently she moved to Philadelphia but continued to summer in the Bay State. Though busy raising four children, she found time to work on a number of significant projects.

While living in Wellesley, for instance, she undertook a decorative map of Wellesley College. Completed in 1943, this beautiful work is more refined than the Vassar map, and shows the development of her skill. In succeeding years, she published several other important commissions, including representations of Philadelphia, Providence (in honor of her father), and Annapolis, Maryland. As Howe emerged as a pioneer in the genre of architectural maps, she also produced decorative maps of Groton, Hingham, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

New England’s Architectural Heritage, 1636-1886
New England’s Architectural Heritage, 1636-1886
Perhaps her most famous map was "New England’s Architectural Heritage, 1636–1886," which appeared in Yankee magazine’s special bicentennial issue in 1976. This work required extensive research and took several years to complete. Well-known examples of local architecture are set in geographical relation to each other, and thus document the history of the entire region. Like Howe’s previous maps, this one was both aesthetically pleasing and historically accurate.

Howe focused her efforts on mapmaking but tried to preserve the architectural heritage of particular regions in other ways, as well. During the 1950s, for example, she wrote a series of articles for a local paper on "Revolutionary Chestnut Hill," which discussed architecture, farms, inns, and mills in Pennsylvania. The artist/preservationist argued that "we must take care that the wave of the future does not engulf this priceless heritage." She also devoted a great deal of energy to making pen sketches of houses, churches, and other landmarks in the communities she lived in, especially Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, and Princeton, Massachusetts. Many of these drawings were done serially and were reproduced in books and on stationery, placemats, tiles, and dinner plates.

In 1983 Howe married Dana Allen (her first husband died in 1975) and went on to publish maps of Princeton, Historic Deerfield, and the Blackstone Valley in Massachusetts, as well as drawings of Cathedral Village in Pennsylvania. Her daughter Helen commented that her work exemplified Howe’s insatiable love of life — of people, places, and contexts — which is a gift to us all. She remained active until her death in 1999.