Houston Hall survives changes with grace

The plaque by the statue of Provost William Pepper thanks Steve Wynn (C’63) for his generous donation that enabled Penn to create the “tree-lined plaza” that is the central gathering place of Perelman Quadrangle.

If you ask me, calling a row of young oak trees along the north side “tree-lined” is stretching things a bit. But who needs trees when you’ve got tables and nice weather? Certainly not the students and staff who filled the tables on the Houston Hall terrace one early October afternoon. After only two weeks since the opening, the activity is awfully close to where it was before the old Houston Hall closed two years ago.

In addition to filling the tables, the al fresco crowd also staked out choice spots on the ampitheater seating at Wynn Commons’ west end, the better to observe nothing and everything at the same time. Inside, it was a little quieter in the lobby, perhaps because the promised music listening stations and computer hookups in the west lounge have yet to be installed. But students and staff had installed themselves in the plush chairs and at the tables, where they ate lunch, studied and napped. There was even a sprinkling of diners in the Bistro, taking advantage of something not seen in Houston Hall in decades — waiter service at your table.

The Admissions Office, as is its custom in the fall, had already staked out prime real estate. Reps were talking to parents in Bodek Lounge, and on the other end of the building, waiters cleaned up after a catered Admissions Office lunch in the Hall ofFlags.

The Hall of Flags closed to the general public at lunch! This is definitely not the Houston Hall I remember.

Then again, nobody needs to eat lunch in the Hall of Flags anymore, thanks to the stunning makeover that transformed most of the basement into the Houston Market food court. Judging from the folks lined up at the grill, the pasta station and the salad and deli counter, this is one place people were hungry for, the staff as much as the students. (Memo to the adventurous: Try the fusion entrees sometime.)

About the only place that seemed unnaturally quiet was the arcade. Was that because the kids who used to hang out there haven’t returned yet, or was this a testament to good acoustic design? We may not know the answer to that question for a few months.

On the way out, I took one last look at the information desk, which made me feel like I was in 30th Street Station instead of Houston Hall. Staff members were busy helping visitors, and I noticed that the message board said that the 2:55 train to New York was delayed 30 minutes. Or maybe that was just a hallucination.


Originally published on October 26, 2000