Penn’s Spectacular Campus Architecture

Penn’s picturesque urban campus features some of the most impressive architecture in Philadelphia, including buildings that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

For 120 years, Penn was located in Center City Philadelphia before the campus relocated to West Philadelphia in 1872.

The Gothic Revival style College Hall, designed in 1872 by architect Thomas Webb Richards, was the first building constructed on the new campus. The multi-purpose building housed faculty offices, classrooms, a gym, the library and research labs. The original building included clock towers on each side of the center portion of the building. The west tower, which had a large bell that called students to class, was removed 1914 (the bell is now on display in Houston Hall). The east tower was torn down in 1929.

Professor David Brownlee of Penn’s Department of the History of Art, says, “the University relocated itself really on the crest of a wave of prosperity and achievement. Those buildings built in the first decade or so after we moved to West Philadelphia reflect the energy of an industrial America and of its greatest industrial city.” Brownlee, an architectural historian, co-authored “Building America's First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania.”

Today, College Hall is a campus landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but Brownlee says when it was constructed it was already an out-of-date building because Richards’ design was based on architecture that was 10 to15 years old.

The interior of College Hall as Richards designed it, “was a rather old-fashioned building, really unlike, and in many respects against, the spirit of the industrial age that created it,” Brownlee says. “Industrialization was pressing engineers and architects to build ever more specialized buildings.”

The campus’ second building by Richards, Medical Hall, now called Claudia Cohen Hall, was created specifically for teaching medicine. On both sides of the main stairs, Richards called for two multi-story surgical amphitheaters. When the Medical School moved into John Morgan Building in 1904, the building was remodeled and the amphitheaters were removed.

Fisher Fine Arts Library, designed by prominent Philadelphia architect Frank Furness in 1891, is also in the National Register of Historic places. Brownlee says: “His building is designed to grapple with you purely physically, to literally embrace you with it’s big round, warm forms and to almost give you a sensory experience of energy and welcome…it’s almost impossible to say what style the building is. It’s got round arches. It’s also got Renaissance classical details. It’s got forms that don’t have any historical sources at all. It doesn’t, in other words, tell a single coherent historical story.”

The Furness building was renovated and restored to its original grandeur in 1991, and it was renamed Fisher Fine Arts Library in honor of donors Anne and Jerome Fisher.

In 1957, during a second building boom on campus, Penn hired renowned architect Louis Kahn to design the Richards Medical Research Building. It was completed in 1960, and Brownlee says Kahn’s innovative design changed the world of modern architecture.

“It was, in every conceivable way, as different from the architecture from the recent past as it was possible to be,” Brownlee says. “Rough and granular, where that architecture [of the recent past] was smooth. Irregular and picturesque where that architecture had been composed defined by simple geometric forms. Highly specialized with respect to its purpose and to its place as that architecture had been generic.“

Having designed the structure to fit in with surrounding buildings, Kahn, a Penn alum, incorporated complementary colors and textures from the Morgan Building, and the Quad dormitories. Today, the Richards Medical Research Lab is among the buildings on an elite list of National Historic Landmarks, under a program run by the National Park Service.

Text and video by Jeanne Leong

Photographs by: University Archives, Steven Minicola, Scott Spitzer