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Sidebar:
Building a University:
A (Very) Selective History

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David Brownlee (left), George Thomas and the Frank
Furness-designed Fisher Fine Arts Library.

(Photo by Candace DiCarlo)

 

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Back in June,
we asked Dr. George E. Thomas Gr’75, lecturer in historic preservation and urban studies, and Dr. David Brownlee, the art-history professor who serves as director of college houses and academic services, to talk about the often-fascinating, sometimes-perplexing architectural mix that is Penn’s campus. Both are serious–if sometimes irreverent–scholars of the subject, and seldom at a loss for words. They’ve been collaborating on a book, Building America’s First University, which will be published next year by the University of Pennsylvania Press, and if there is anything about Penn’s architecture that they don’t know, chances are it’s not worth knowing.
    We met in a conference room in Harnwell College House, one of the high-rise dormitories from the early 1970s that so many people love to hate, and talked for almost two hours. I began the conversation by noting that Benjamin Franklin’s famous dictum of teaching the "useful and ornamental" is not unlike the ancient architectural principles of Vitruvius, who preached utilitas, firmitas, venustas ("usefulness, firmness and delight"). How, I wondered, has the Penn campus reflected those ideas?
    Thomas: Where I see Franklin’s values really coming into play is in the current campus [to which the University moved in 1872], where the sciences had a home for the first time, and where the buildings, after the first round, began to look increasingly like a foundry, almost a factory–part of the real world. The library by [Frank] Furness is almost industrial, like a foundry-and-office complex, and the great power plant [that once stood] where Irvine is–both classic industrial buildings, very much looking like the city that was home to the University.
    Brownlee: The late-19th-century period is a time when both the American university and American industry were being defined in new, internationally important ways. And as it happened, in Philadelphia the people involved in those two things were the same people.
   
Thomas: In 1866, we had a new trustee, William Sellers, who was the premier machine toolmaker in the world. He applied his values to the shaping of the institution, and all the architects who worked under the Sellers era were expected to represent Penn as part of the modern world.
    I guess the next phase where Franklin’s values reappeared is this wonderful moment when scientist [Gaylord P.] Harnwell was in charge of the institution in the 1950s, and architecture again becomes experimental and quite interesting.
    As I look at the University, I see two great pendulum swings–there’s very little middle. We’re either way over on the experimental, industrial, modern side, or we’re over in the academic, want-to-look-like-everybody-else side. My sense, as I look back over Penn’s history, is that these are the poles of the culture in which we live in the modern world. So it makes a surprisingly felicitous representation of the cultures that we cope with.

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