Philadelphia is known for its magnificent works of public art, and some of the city’s most spectacular pieces are found right here on Penn’s campus.
Take a stroll along Locust Walk and you’ll find John Boyle’s seated, bronze Ben Franklin Statue in front of College Hall. A stone’s throw away, in front of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, is Claes Oldenburg’s “Split Button.” The iconic, 5,000-pound aluminum sculpture—a popular Penn landmark—was installed in 1981.
In addition to the Franklin statue outside of College Hall, there are two other sculptures honoring Penn’s legendary founder. A statue of a young Ben Franklin that stands in front of Weightman Hall on 33rd Street was designed by Penn’s own Robert Tait McKenzie and dedicated in 1914. The sculpture depicts Franklin as he was when he first came to Philadelphia in 1723: a young man with very little personal property, no job and no fame.
The life-sized “Ben on the Bench” sculpture at 37th Street and Locust Walk was a gift from the Class of 1962 and was presented to the University for the class’ 25th reunion in 1987. The piece shows Franklin reading The Pennsylvania Gazette, one of his own publications.
Installed in 1998, Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” statue, on Locust Walk near 36th Street, was a gift from Jeffrey and Sivia Loria. It is one of several variations of the sculpture created by Indiana between 1966 and 1998. Another one resides in Center City’s LOVE Park (or JFK Plaza). To read more about Penn’s “LOVE” statue, click here.
When Alexander Liberman’s abstract, steel pipe, “Covenant” was installed at 39th Street and Locust Walk in 1975, it attracted more detractors than supporters. Made from rolled sheets of milled steel painted cherry red, some students and faculty panned the sculpture as “gross” and “hideous.” One its admirers was Second Lady Joan Mondale, wife of former Vice President Walter Mondale. During a campus visit in 1979 as part of a daylong tour of Philadelphia public art, she said, “I like it. I think it’s very powerful. You’re lucky to have it.”
Public art at Penn began as part of a 1959 Philadelphia law calling for 1 percent of construction costs to be set aside for fine arts projects. The University has purchased the campus art with donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.
Art lovers or admirers can learn more about Penn’s outdoor art through the University’s free “Discover Penn” audio walking tour. The program, launched in 2008 by the Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services, allows people to call a number posted on a small, red ground-level sign posted at various sites around campus. Callers receive a short narration about significant University buildings, sculptures, historical events and other points of interest.
Text by Jeanne Leong