Dorms, housing, houses

The nostalgia of Homecoming Weekend found its antidote in a talk on the future of campus living. About 30 alums, students and architecture fans looked at slides and listened to how Hamilton Village — still referred to as Superblock — and the Quad will be transformed architecturally to support the around-the-clock community-living model that college houses offer.

Graduate School of Fine Arts Dean Gary Hack, who emceed the event in College Hall, delivered a brief history of campus living. “A few years ago we referred to them as dormitories,” he said, “then ... housing. Now we call them houses.” Hack, a world-renowned urban planner, placed those houses into the context of Penn’s place in West Philadelphia — the community is better off with fewer students residing in it, he said — and into the context of the new master plan for the campus, which calls for more opportunities for on-campus living.

David Brownlee, who has the campus’s 12 college houses under his purview, said students did not live on the West Philadelphia campus until the1890s when construction of the Quad began. The third and final Quad construction, built in the 1950s, was followed shortly thereafter by the women’s dorm, today’s coed Hill House, in 1958, and then by Superblock in the 1970s.

Brownlee called them a “motley group of buildings,” all of which have undergone or will undergo changes to provide the kinds of common rooms, technical equipment and living quarters that would institutionalize late-night bull sessions and allow a student writing a paper in the middle of the night to get help — technical or academic.

Then Brownlee delivered the softball pitch. “You yourself can be a donor and have a College House named after yourself,” he said. “We’re waiting with small buckets at the back of the room.”

Two architects behind the transformation, John Patkau and James Timberlake, described their own contributions, including what Patkau called finding ways to break up the “Russian shoe factory” look of Hamilton Village.

The talk ended with college house visionary and Kelly Writers House founder and Faculty Director Al Filreis intoning the name of that other school, Harvard, and ideas from its school of education, in an impassioned argument that college houses and hubs like the Writers House make a difference in what and how students learn.


Originally published on November 30, 2000