University City Historical Society

College Hall, University of Pennsylvania

in Quadrant Bounded by Walnut & Spruce Streets, 34th & 36th Streets

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places February 14, 1978


College Hall is a large 4 to 5 story masonry structure occupying a site in West Philadelphia between 34th and 36th, Spruce and Walnut Streets, at the heart of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The building serves as the chief administrative academic headquarters of the University as well as providing classroom and office space for a number of academic departments.

College Hall, University of Pennsylvania c. 1978
College Hall, University of Pennsylvania c. 1978.

The original organization of the building was a threefold fulfillment of the program: the administrative offices, with a two-story chapel above, were contained in a central pavilion, flanked on either side by smaller pavilions likewise perpendicular to the linear core connecting them. They are west of this central pavilion contained the "Collegiate Departments", while the newly-instituted "Scientific Departments" were housed in the eastern sections of the building.

On the exterior, upper walls of green serpentine stone are articulated with courses of brownstone and "Ohio stone" arches and cornices, all on a base of dark grey schist. The main entrance porch (on the northern side) is of lighter grey "Franklin stone" with columns of pink polished granite. The whole is topped by a slate mansarded story with wooden dormers, a story higher over the chapel. The latter is indicated in elevation by the taller two-centered lancet windows with more conventional Geometric Gothic tracery and stained glass (since removed), in contrast to the various segmental forms of other openings.

Most of the major changes in the building's external appearance have occurred in a kind of 'crew-cut' of the complexity of the building's meeting with sky-large towers came off the top over either end of the main corridor, the west tower with its large clock coming down in 1914, the eastern, which contained the bell now in Houston Hall, in 1929. Within the first two decades of its existence, a bellcote on collonnettes at the peak of the rear facade of the central pavilion was likewise disassembled. Later removals included ornate wrought iron crestlings and terra cotta chimney pots along the ridges and corners of the roof, and finally, two steep pyramidal spires truncated in the 1950's, having been at the corners of the prominent portion of the central pavilion.

College Hall has been haunted almost since its inception by the deterioration of its serpentine walls by chemical and physical agents, a structural deterioration that necessitated the removal of the towers and which has required repeated repairs in a color-matched cement to virtually all the serpentine work. Interior space allocations have been repeatedly modified with institutional growth and successive reorganizations, although few major structural changes have been made beyond some internal bracing & the pouring of concrete floors around 1910.

Statement of Significance

College Hall is a building that occupies a pivotal position in connecting design before and after the Civil War. This observation is borne out best in its overall organization of spaces in volumes attached perpendicularly to a single linear core containing circulation. A strongly stated symmetrical effect of central and side pavilions asserts its dominating presence over the site. In this aspect we see the probable influence of Richards' apprenticeship from 1851–1857 with Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia. Sloan's firms were especially successful in the exploitation of such linear pavilion plans in asylums and hospitals all over the country, including the nearby Department for Males at the Pennsylvania Hospital Institute for the Insane. Sloan's later design for Episcopal Hospital in Philadelphia, extensively published in his Architectural Review in 1869, also appears notably parallel in conception. The climax of Sloan's career ended abruptly in the panic of 1857 and the subsequent depression, at which time Richards appears to have been dismissed due to the decreased volume of work in that office.

While the accommodation to the site was accomplished at the nearby Furness Library by an architectural manipulation of volumes respecting both the axis of Locust Walk and the diagonal. of Woodland Avenue, College Hall denies the diagonal, making its transition to the site with the circular approach in front of the building. The architect has manipulated the site to accommodate the building's axiality, a statement of presence decisively different from Furness' more than a decade later in a similar situation.

Despite these antebellum roots, Richards' design moves quite strongly towards the love of complexity and richness that was celebrated in much of the design of the seventies. This is especially compelling in the decisive polychromatic effect intended by the architect, juxtaposing a dark grey schist base with lime-colored serpentine upper walls which are articulated by courses of brownstone and lighter "Ohio stone" for arches and cornices, in addition to the slate roof with wood dormers, wood tracery as well as the porch of grey "Franklin stone" and polished pink granite. The integral qualities of materials are repeatedly contrasted, continually celebrating an organic richness in the presence of the building, a human orchestration of the physical variety of the natural world.

Frequent descriptions of the building by both the architect and other commentators as being "in the Collegiate Gothic style" indicate a widely-made stylistic association. Implicit in this Association is (1) an understanding of style as a signifying element, as a signpost of the building's character and of the intent of its patrons, and (2) a conception of "Collegiate Gothic" formally quite divergent from that invoked later, as in buildings at Penn by Cope and Stewardson, buildings conforming much more to both the letter and spirit of the Tudor and Jacobean architecture of the British universities at Oxford and Cambridge from which the term derives. This freer interpretation by Richards represents a commitment to a late l9th century idea of unrelenting progress in design to accompany the undeniable technological and territorial expansion of that era in America.

Decades after Richards' death, Warren P. Laird, Dean of Penn's School of Architecture during its inception and floravit as a Beaux-Arts institution, characterized Richards' work as "clearly (bearing) the stamp of building committee domination over the architect' This statement is revealing of contrasting attitudes between men in two distinct eras for the architectural profession. For Richards, as for Sloan, there could be virtually no overfacilitation of the patron's needs and desires. Richards took an equal pride in fulfilling the patron's desires for its convenience of spatial arrangement, its ease of circulation, its generous lighting and ventilation, and its overall aesthetic impact. His relations with the building committee made the results a work of collaboration in the best sense of that word. The client engaged the architect to involve him in the full range of architectural and programmatic decisions more than as a remote who involved himself only after, regardless of, or condescendingly toward such non-formal decisions. Richards was successful enough in this regard for Theo B. White to describe College Hall, "at the time of its completion, (as) probably the best-planned college building in the country." The Provost then, Charles J. Stille, wrote Richards that "scientific schools in New York or New England weren't as well-planned or as conveniently arranged as this", and that he had "no fear about the superior beauty of (its) elevation, which will speak for itself". The newspapers of the day describe it as "magnificent", and the university's satisfaction with the results is testified to by Richards' appointment in October, 1872, as university architect, a position which yielded him three subsequent commissions for university buildings in the seventies.

Only one of these buildings survives to any recognizable extent, which raises another argument for the significance of College Hall. It is the major representative of the oeuvre of Thomas W. Richards, a man who not only rivaled Philadelphia's and the nation's best architects of the seventies, but one whose single-handed instruction in architecture at Penn produced a number of nationally and locally prominent architects, including Frank Miles Day (1883), James Barr Feree (1884), Emlyn Lamar Stewardson (1884), Charles Barton Keen (1889), and Horace Wells Sellers (1877).

Finally, beyond its significance to architectural history, perhaps the most important aspect of College Hall's significance is its continued role in defining a sense of place at the heart of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania; by its presence it provides a crucial sense of historical continuity, the absence of which would be deeply felt.

This National Register Nomination was researched and prepared by Jeff Cohen.

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