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Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of author William Dean Howells, he earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1891 and completed further architectural studies there in 1894 before studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, where he earned a diploma in 1897.
Howells moved to New York City and founded the architectural firm Howells & Stokes with Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who had also studied at the École. The partnership designed such works as St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University and Stormfield, an Italianate villa commissioned by Samuel Clemens, a longtime friend of his father.
Ending the partnership in 1913, Howells would focus his practice on office buildings in the Art Deco style, many of which he completed with Raymond Hood, whom he had met during his time at the École. These projects include the Tribune Tower in Chicago and the Daily News Building and the Beekman (Panhellenic) Tower in New York City. Howells also designed the plan for the University of Brussels in Belgium in 1922 at the request of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Howells institutional works includes the Engineering Quadrangle at Pratt Institute built in phases from 1909 to 1928; Memorial Hall at Pratt Institute in 1927; and Willoughby Hall at Pratt Institute in 1957.
Howells served as president of the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects and the Society of Architects Diplômes. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, named a Chevalier by the French Legion of Honor and an officer of the Order of the Crown (Belgium), and served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 1933 to 1937. Howells wrote several books on architectural history. In 1944 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician.
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