I’ve seen a number of photos recently showing early College Hall in what was then an open field. The photos also show a clock tower on the west side, two stories taller than the current structure. What happened to that clock tower, and when?
—Curious About the Clock Tower
When Penn first moved out of downtown to the picturesque landscape of West Philadelphia, the University’s early buildings did sit in an open field. Besides, nothing else was out here.
The first building on the new, green campus was College Hall—built in 1870-73 by Thomas Webb Richards, the University’s first instructor of architectural drafting. In the book, “Building America’s First University,”
eorge Thomas, Penn lecturer in historical preservation and urban studies, and David Brownlee, the Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor in History of Art, write a detailed account of the first days of Penn’s West Philly residence—including information about College Hall when it was first constructed.
At the time, the building contained almost the entire University under its roof, including the library, classrooms for arts, science and law, and administrative offices. And as your keen eye saw, clock towers were part of the original structure, too, rising at both eastern and western ends of the building. The towers were key elements of the original design, which Thomas and Brownlee describe as a “lively, syncopated composition,” with elements borrowed from the French Revolution.
Unfortunately, the towers didn’t last. One was removed in 1914, the other in 1929. The last remnant of their existence—a great bell that rang at the change of classes—was moved to Houston Hall when the second tower came down. It remains there today.
For more information, check out either Thomas and Brownlee’s book or “Gladly Learn and Gladly Teach,” a 1976 book by Martin Meyerson and Dilys Winegrad.
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Originally published on January 8, 2009