Storied Structures

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When I arrived at Penn, I was assigned a room in one of the high-rises. There was one thing that everyone who lived in them knew, or at least had heard, about the buildings: They were actually temporary structures, thrown up on the cheap.

That legend, along with others—such as that the rooms in Hill House are so small because it was thought that women, for whom the building was originally built, needed less space—are collected in a section of Building America’s First University, the architectural history authored by Penn faculty members George E. Thomas Gr’75 and David B. Brownlee.

Such stories about buildings speak a certain kind of truth. Penn was awfully short of cash back in the 1970s, and the University had a long history of expecting women students to make do with less than their male counterparts, for example. But the buildings themselves tell stories, too—about which activities and programs the University considered most important, and about the face it wished to present to the world.

As George Thomas tells it, in “Building Penn’s Brand,” the Gazette was founded in the midst of—and, indeed, as an integral part of—a vast image makeover designed to transform what had been industrial Philadelphia’s “training house and research laboratory” into a kind of leisure-class interlude modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, the better to compete for the “right” students with eastern elite colleges.

This effort kicked off in 1896 with the construction of three signature structures, still among the most recognized on campus—Houston Hall, Franklin Field, and the Quadrangle dormitories —and one symbolic act: the redating of the University’s founding from 1749 to 1740, which had the effect of leapfrogging rival Princeton in the older-is-better sweepstakes. (In a nice phrase, Thomas calls this, “The new standard of genes instead of genius.”)

The Gazette was the new era’s cheerleader, says Thomas. The first issue celebrated Houston Hall and editorialized against the “ancient idea, that the book worm is the highest product of scholastic or University training” and in favor of the student “whose development is many sided, if not entirely perfect.” Thomas’s provocative essay traces the debate as it played out in bricks and mortar (and our pages) from the turn of the century up to the present era of a largely happy coexistence of styles. In related stories, “Brand Extensions” offers some photos of buildings now going up on campus, and, in “Unbuilt Penn,” senior editor Samuel Hughes takes a look at some others that never made it off the drawing board.

Also in this issue, associate editor Susan Frith reports on a study by the Vet School’s Dr. Cindy Otto and Dr. Melissa Hunt C’90 Gr’96, associate professor of psychology, on search dogs and their handlers deployed following the September 11 terrorist attacks. The article offers a vivid picture of the human-animal relationships involved in volunteer search-and-rescue efforts, and the emotional and health costs of such work. Otto, who spent eight days at the World Trade Center site, admits to being frustrated by the lack of survivors. “Doing the study has helped,” she told Susan, “because I am still involved, doing something good out of something horrible.”

As Stephen Fried C’79 notes in the interview that accompanies the excerpt from his recently published book, The New Rabbi, the attacks of September 11 have caused many people to reexamine their attitudes about religion. For Fried, that process had started some years earlier, first with the death of his father, and then his decision to write a book about a prominent Main Line synagogue, Har Zion, and its search for a new rabbi to replace its retiring leader, Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe. He spent four years researching and writing the story, and the result is a rich, colorful, moving portrait of a congregation at a crossroads—a picture, as Fried says, of “what is going on all over the country for communities, clergy members, and spiritually curious Americans.”

—John Prendergast C’80

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