Celebrating the written word

Kelly Writers HousePhoto credit: Tanya Barrientos 

Once upon a time, in a land of knowledge known as Penn, a band of forward-thinkers believed there should be a place on campus where people could discuss, appreciate and participate in every aspect of the writing process. The place, they believed, should exist outside the conventional classroom, be open to everyone and be run by those who would use it.

That vision became the Kelly Writers House (KWH) at 3805 Locust Walk, and on Saturday, Oct. 30, it will celebrate its 15th anniversary with an open house from 2 to 4 p.m.

Al Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English and one of the House’s original founders, says KWH was established in 1995 on the idea that students at Penn deserved a place on campus where they could find a rich intellectual experience that had nothing to do with the curriculum.

Today it’s a place where novelists, poets, journalists, screenplay writers, humorists, food writers and others meet, work, dine and mingle with students, faculty and the general public.

For decades the building served as the home of the Rev. Stanley E. Johnson, who was Penn’s chaplain for 34 years. Johnson lived in the historic 13-room cottage, built by Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, from the 1960s until he retired in 1994. Upon his departure, then President Judith Rodin decided the house should be put to another use.

That is when, Filreis says, a small group of faculty, students and staff discussed the possibility of creating an experimental writers house. The idea took root and soon Filreis was holding the keys to the cottage.

“I remember that I went in there, and the house was so dilapidated,” Filreis says. But the disrepair did not keep him from seeing the possibilities, and along with the rest of the small planning group, he set about envisioning what every room in the building might be used for. The parlor, they imagined, would be a perfect setting for readings and gatherings. The kitchen would give the house the warmth of a true home.

“We met that day from about 10 in the morning, until about eight or nine at night,” he recalls. “We neglected to realize the electricity was turned off and ended up using candles to see what we were doing.”

Filreis says they called the house’s core planning committee “the hub” and its members agreed the place would be run as a “literary student republic” with students making all the major decisions about events and how to keep the house running smoothly. To this day, it is still the students who decide how the house will be used, although there is now a full-time director and four full-time staffers helping to manage the site.

Approximately 300 events occur within the house’s walls each year, and the planning committee continues to call itself “the hub.”

“That ethos has been so firmly established that my job is to make sure the students who have brilliant ideas can fulfill them,” says Director Jessica Lowenthal, who has worked at KWH for five years. “I help them in ways as simple as giving advice about an event, or with more elaborate details like raising funds.”

Filreis says about a year into the Writers House initiative, Penn alumnus and Chairman of the China Ceramics Company Paul K. Kelly dropped by to see what was going on in the shabby house on Locust Walk.

“It just happened that on that day there was a jazz band playing in the front room and cookies and cakes were baking in the kitchen,” Filreis says. “He absolutely loved the place, and within 20 minutes he pledged $1 million to help fix it up.” Kelly’s gift allowed for a complete renovation of the Tudor-style cottage that included new plumbing, restoration of the fireplaces, an updated kitchen and the painting of the exterior of the house with its original colors of tan and Fairmount green. It became the Kelly Writers House.

Soon, the house began to earn a reputation for being a welcoming venue for writers of all genres, especially emerging talent. But in 1999, Paul Kelly approached Filreis once again, asking what it would take to attract the world’s marquee authors. With a grant from Kelly, the Kelly Writers House Fellows program was established, allowing the most eminent authors to come to Penn to work closely with small groups of student writers and also do readings for the public.

Through the Fellows program, KWH has welcomed world-class authors such as Joan Didion, Richard Ford, Ian Frazier, Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kincaid, Grace Paley, Gay Talese, John Edgar Wideman and others. This year, the KWH Fellows will be Marjorie Perloff, Susan Cheever and Edward Albee.

Filreis, who continues to serve as the faculty director of KWH, says everyone affiliated with the house has worked hard to keep its communal nature alive.

“There is a real emphasis on community-building here,” says Lily Applebaum, a junior in the College. “Anybody can come in and make the space their own.”

Originally published on October 14, 2010