“To Live Like They Don’t Live at Other Universities”

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Dr. David Brownlee can’t hide his glee as he strides across Spruce Street in the direction of Hamilton College House, the first of three student high-rises to be revamped on campus. Along the way, he stops to point out Harrison, the old high rise: “Dark. Forbidding. Like a thundercloud of unhappy rain.” To the right looms Harnwell, equally reminiscent of “dull, dull rain.” But, says Brownlee, extending his arm into the distance, “there you see the future.”

If Hamilton’s updated exterior is any measure, the future looks bright—well, actually minty-green and khaki (the two-toned color scheme now subtly tinting 25 stories of cleaned-up concrete). Gone are the dull grids of windows truncated by brown air-conditioning panels. In their place is a lighter, brighter window system featuring four kinds of glass. Though it allows more light to come in, it actually improves the building’s protection from UV rays.

Brownlee, the chair and professor of art history who is overseeing renovations for all the college houses, along with Daniel Kelley, the architect of the $80 million high-rises project, gave a tour of Hamilton before the school year started.

Penn’s three high-rise dormitories “were relatively moribund,” says Kelley, principal of the Philadelphia firm MGA Partners. “Built in the Sixties at a time when finishes were raw, these are buildings which did not have a lot of finesse when they were first conceived—and, after 40 years, what finesse they had had disappeared.” In upgrading them, the challenge was to take “a relatively modest budget [and] make a dramatic difference.”

The difference in Hamilton is marked, from the front porch and glass vestibule that now “reach out to meet Locust Walk” to the cool-gray slate floors of the front lobby and the bright, modern-styled “handkerchief” chairs that fill students’ suites.

With each of the college houses, the aim is to create spaces for a community of students to “meet and learn from each other in every moment of the day and night.” But the Hamilton Village high-rises required a different approach than the Quadrangle, Brownlee explains. “In the Quad we were looking at … a project that was respectful of the historic character of the neo-Gothic dormitories.” With the high-rises, the goal was “to create skyscraper college houses that took off from the notion that this is a sophisticated, modern city, [Penn is] a great university alive in that city, and this is an opportunity for college students to live like they don’t live at other universities.”

Hamilton is outfitted with meeting and conference rooms; music practice rooms; a computer lab; a café; and a fitness center. Its rooftop lounge now has adjustable lighting that can accommodate dance performances or movie screenings.

Once a “dark and cavernous space,” in Kelley’s words, the new lobby has light-colored walls and modern furniture, including a gleaming stainless-steel fireplace. The front desk has been transformed into an “information center” and the new entry system uses transparent, glass-paneled turnstiles to reduce the feeling that one is entering a high-security zone where guards are posted. Hole-covered steel panels line the wall by the elevators, forming a bulletin board “that will never look junky, because it won’t have the residue of previously abandoned posters,” Brownlee says. The mezzanine lounge will soon open onto a tree-filled balcony on the back façade of the building. 

Renovations began on Harrison this past summer and will be completed by next fall. Harnwell will get its makeover by fall 2005. As pleased as they are with Hamilton, Brownlee and Kelley want the other two high-rises to have “an individuality of their own.” Their lobbies will look different, and so will some of their amenities. In Harrison, for example, “we already know we want to build darkrooms because there is a visual-arts presence in that house,” Brownlee says. 

Even the colors chosen for Harrison’s exterior, natural and warm sandstone, are part of an effort “to differentiate the buildings while still working within an organizing scheme that brings them together,” Kelley adds. “Each will be colored in rather subtle, natural-seeming colors that will keep them living together in the same family.”


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