About CHAS

About

History of the College Houses at Penn

Penn has been fostering a vigorous on-campus community since it was first founded more than two centuries ago. In 1763, the University turned to Robert Smith, one of colonial America's foremost architects, for the design of its first dormitory, called simply "The New Building." That structure on Fourth Street in downtown Philadelphia was demolished long ago, but the uniquely American idea that a university or college needed a "campus" to serve the diverse needs of its students has remained.

After the Civil War, Penn moved to its present campus in West Philadelphia. One of the most significant elements of the giant building campaign that followed was the rambling, turreted complex of interlocking (originally all-male) dormitories called "The Quadrangle." That complex is now home to three of today's College Houses: Fisher Hassenfeld, Riepe, and Ware.

In the post-Sputnik era of expansion in American higher education, Penn built again, turning to the famous Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, to design a women's dormitory which is today the co-ed Hill College House. The buildings that are now Stouffer College House and Kings Court English College House were also built or acquired at this time.

Vehicular traffic was banned in the so-called "super block" part of campus, stretching from 38th to 40th streets between Walnut and Spruce streets. This enabled the development of a park-like setting presided over by a soaring trio of high-rise dormitories which today are Harnwell, Harrison, and Rodin College Houses. They were joined on this designated green space by the low-rise buildings that framed the surrounding lawns; they are today's W.E.B. Du Bois College House and Gregory College House. The area in toto is known as Hamilton Village, a name restored from the 19th century.

In 2016, Penn opened the doors of its first new construction for residents in thirty-some years with the completion of the spectacular New College House on the corners of 33rd and 34th streets and Walnut and Chestnut streets. The 198,000 square foot building was designed by the Philadelphia-based firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ). Home to approximately 350 undergraduates, it offers a new dining venue, seminar rooms, a media center and a central courtyard that can accommodate concerts and other activities.

In conceptual terms, Penn had two major growth periods in the transformation of these "dormitory" buildings into more than just places for students to sleep and study. In the 1970s, a cohort of faculty worked strenuously to reinvent the way they and students interacted; they sought a more holistic approach to the collegiate experience. Thus the notion of intellectual communities began wherein faculty, staff and their families took up residence in the dorms alongside students in order for spontaneous, and carefully planned, interactions of creative, social, political and recreation import took place. Noted speakers and guests were also invited to partake in the life of the student outside of the classroom. And yet, it was a volunteer venture at that time; only students who wished to participate in these communities would apply to those dorms called "College Houses." Some had theme-based floors and eventually also became the birthplace of distributed services such as computing support. Roughly 20 years later, during the tenure of President Judith Rodin, the faculty again re-evaluated the strength of student/faculty interaction and after extensive research, concluded that the College House model, so organically and successfully created in the 1970s, could well serve all undergraduates living on campus. The decision to make all undergraduate residences College Houses—each with a full complement of faculty and talented senior staff to run events and programs as well as coordinate key services—began in earnest in Fall 1998. Prof. David B. Brownlee, History of Art, was appointed the first faculty director of the newly-invigorated House system. Though they continue to evolve in countless positive ways, today's twelve College Houses at Penn are hubs of intellectual, social, and recreational activity. They stand at the center of the Penn undergraduate experience, bringing together undergraduates, faculty, staff and graduate students to form shared communities within the larger context of Penn's vibrant campus.