BY SAMUEL HUGHES

Had Penn alumni been more forthcoming with their financial support 110 years ago, the central destination on campus for today’s alumni might be the Furness building. No, not the one now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library; the other one—Alumni Hall, which Frank Furness proposed around the time he designed his bold, industry-inspired library. It would have been built just north of that library, on the site now occupied by Meyerson Hall, and would have served as Penn’s principal auditorium—obviating the need for the future Irvine. To anyone entering the campus from the east, the two Furness buildings would have made quite a statement.

“Lumbering across from the library, the alumni hall would have made the entrance to the campus a collection of sculptural hulks, a modern Greek agora in fiery red,” writes Michael J. Lewis G’85 Gr’89, author of Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. The proposed hall was “low-slung and compact and, in character, hinted more at religion than at theater,” he notes, and Furness’s sketch of the two buildings “may well have startled his clients. At any rate, the expected alumni support never materialized.”

Alumni Hall is not the only architectural exclamation point that might have transfigured Penn’s campus. With the right kind of eyes (and the illustration on page 37), for example, you can stand on the steps of the Law School and, looking across 34th Street at Hill Field, see a great geodesic dome designed by the late R. Buckminster Fuller Hon’74 for the Institute of Contemporary Art. While it would have been a coup of sorts to have the ICA in a Bucky Ball—the signature design of the only architect to have a molecule named after him—Fuller’s proposal was never under serious consideration.

“He was around at the time, and teaching for us,” recalls G. Holmes Perkins Hon’72, former dean of the School of Fine Arts. “We were talking about the ICA, but he wasn’t commissioned to do it; he was just having some fun.”

Professor Paul Philippe Cret wasn’t just having fun when he designed a sumptuous Italian Renaissance villa for the School of Architecture in 1906, to be built on the south side of Spruce Street at 33rd. The school desperately needed new quarters, as a front-page article in a 1910 Old Penn (the Gazette’s predecessor) pointed out. The school’s “training in architecture is the best now within reach of American youth,” the anonymous author noted, but its “present quarters, expanded to the utmost capacity of overcrowded university buildings, are so filled as to create imperative need of a new building.”

 

 

Above: The University Tower would have housed Penn’s administration. Upper left: Frank Furness’s Alumni Hall would have been Penn’s main auditorium.

The reason Cret’s vision remained on the drawing board can undoubtedly be traced to a remark buried in the same paragraph: “the school has grown without aid of endowment …” Today, the triangular plot of land that might have held Cret’s mansion is a parking lot, and Penn’s architecture department is housed in … Meyerson Hall.

Cret had another vision for Penn that never came to pass: College Avenue, an “open vista more than a thousand feet long,” which would have extended north from College Hall along the old 35th Street to at least Chestnut Street. Cret, along with Warren Laird and the Olmsted brothers, proposed the “Mall or ‘College Avenue’ 100 feet wide, facing which could be placed a number of University buildings,” in a 1913 campus plan. If built, it would have changed the campus flow from east-west to north-south.

Thirty-five years later, another trustees’ committee—this one chaired by architect Sydney E. Martin Ar’07—saw the main axis of campus as running east-west along Locust Street. Yet right in the middle of that axis, at the intersection of 36th and
Locust, the committee saw a limestone-clad skyscraper—a University Tower. “Intended as a ‘Cathedral of Learning’ like the University of Pittsburgh’s 1920s skyscraper,” notes George E. Thomas Gr’75 in his Building America’s First University, “it was to be a visual sign of Penn’s renewed vigor.”

Should future generations “decide that College Hall had outlived its usefulness,” Martin’s committee suggested, the “multiple story tower office building” could house Penn’s administration and become the “focal point of campus” as well. There were other advantages, too: Penn could “demolish Logan Hall and the Hare Laboratory and acquire another splendid area for academic expansion”—and, of course, tear down Furness’s then-despised library to make room for a fully extended Locust Walk.

 

 



Sept/Oct Contents | Gazette Home

 

Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/02/02