Hill College House opened in 1960 as the new “women’s residence” on Penn’s campus at 33rd and Walnut streets.
Named after 1889 alumnus Robert C. Hill, whose gift enabled the University to purchase the land, the building was designed by distinguished Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, whose other works include Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.; the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City; the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; and residence halls at Yale University.
Hill House is Saarinen’s only building in Philadelphia. Like many of his building designs, the spaces that people occupy in Hill are around the perimeter.
“The building is essentially a donut,” says University Architect David Hollenberg, “and the shared spaces are toward the middle.”
Saarinen’s design concentrated on promoting social activity, encouraging students to get out of their rooms and into the common spaces to chat and mingle.
Over the past two summers and the 2016-17 academic year, Hill House has undergone an $80 million refresh and renovation, inside and out, bringing the building into the 21st century while keeping its unique fabric and remaining true to Saarinen’s vision.
Enhancements, the work of Mills + Schnoering Architects in Princeton, N.J., have been made to student rooms, common areas, the central dining area, kitchenettes, and bathrooms.
The original configuration has been largely retained, with an accumulation of interventions that collectively refresh the building and enrich its spaces—especially its shared spaces. The shared bathrooms have also been completely renovated, including the first gender neutral multi-stall bathrooms on the campus.
“It’s very rewarding to have made that intervention that Saarinen would have not recognized at all,” Hollenberg says.
Saarinen’s steadfastness to socialization is maintained by more than a dozen different types of lounges, such as the grand Club Lounge and Study Lounge, beautiful terraces, and elegant atriums.
New mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems have been installed throughout the building, in addition to new furniture, the restoration of more than 400 windows, a brand-new pedestrian walkway leading to Women’s Walk, an elevator and lift, and, for the first time, air conditioning.
The most dramatic intervention to the building was in the dining area, which was redesigned with a mini-kitchen concept with multiple food stations.
Marie Witt, vice president of the Business Services Division, which oversees Penn Dining, says the food stations allow for a wider variety of food options.
“[The renovation] gave us a separate space to do specifically vegan and vegetarian separate from all the other concepts,” she says. “The healthy options are really important. It really gave us the opportunity to not only bring the food out into the dining room, but to give us options for the students that are much greater than they were before.”
Dining hall amenities include a Mongolian grill, brick oven pizza, a rotisserie and smoker, yogurt, smoothie, and fresh fruit stations, and a station serving ice cream and freshly baked desserts. Opportunities for gluten-free items are also available. Anyone with a PennCard can eat in the Hill cafeteria, which has extended hours for late-night diners.
Hill College House preserves Saarinen’s revolutionary vision for communal living with multiple public spaces at varying physical and social scales.
Five hundred freshmen began moving into Hill on Wednesday, Aug. 23.
Adam Adnane, a graduate assistant (GA) at the House, lived in the building when he was a freshman, and returned after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Penn in May.
Although he put Hill as his last choice his freshman year, he says the building was perfect for him, despite its imperfections. He met the majority of his best friends from college at the House, and says his fellow residents were instrumental in helping him overcome his first-year academic struggles.
“I was the first person in my family to go through undergrad here in the United States, so I had no idea what to expect whatsoever from undergrad for college,” he says. “Coming to Hill, where there was a great community, was a huge plus. The other pre-meds, and the other engineers, and the other nurses helped me get through that first transition period.”
When he applied to be a graduate assistant, Adnane, a master’s student studying public health in the Perelman School of Medicine, put Hill as his first choice.
“I had the option of interviewing with other College Houses and I immediately took the job here because I knew I loved it,” he says. “And on top of that, it has air conditioning now, which is a huge plus.”
GAs, resident assistants, faculty, and staff at Hill have been trying to help students build the sense of community that was vital to the success of students like Adnane. Not even a few weeks in, Adnane says he can already see a House family starting to form. Students are out and about, and out of their rooms, and the lounges are full of people.
“There’s something that pushes people out of their safe space or comfort zone to go and make friends and foster that sense of community,” he says.
Penn’s commitment to sustainability was incorporated into the Hill College House renovation. Ninety-five percent of existing walls, floors, and the roof were reused, and 95 percent of non-hazardous construction debris was salvaged and recycled.
Flooded with light and washed with sun, Hill College House is widely admired by seasoned members of the Penn community not only for its architectural qualities, but for its social success.
Standing in the new dining hall, with the wonderful sound of water echoing through the space, one can see the social intelligence of Saarinen’s planning and design experiment, and the beauty of the diversity that Penn strives for, and works toward.
Students of all races in benches and booths break bread in unity, seeing color and equality among all.
At once such table, Dallas Taylor, a freshman from West Philly and a vocal Hill College House fan, holds sway. He says Hill is the most social House on campus.
“Everyone here loves each other,” Taylor says. “It’s like a big community. There’s like a melting pot of ethnicities and different religions, and everyone just comes together and has a good time. And also, the food.”