Shaping A New Urban Crossroads At 33rd And Chestnut

 

Woodland Walk carries pedestrians through Penn’s Campus and into the vital intersection of 33rd and Chestnut. | Photo: Michael Bixler

For more than 50 years, the clearest border between Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania has been the corner of 33rd and Chestnut Streets. Much of that time the two institutions have passively co-existed, urban neighbors with distinct institutional cultures reflected in their architectural habits and campus forms mostly keeping to themselves. The intersection itself has reflected that ambivalence: not a single building met the street corner, not a single building wall was designed to be open and inviting to the pedestrian.

All that now has changed, as the two institutions together have dramatically reconstructed the intersection with four contemporary, high-performing (though mixed quality) buildings and distinctive landscape and urban design that mark this singular spot and the vital role of university life in the culture of Philadelphia.

The four points, occupied by Drexel’s Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building (NE corner), the eight-story residential block of Chestnut Square (SE corner), Penn’s New College House (SW corner), and a hotel, The Study at University City, have sparked a vital urban conversation, with Drexel largely initiating the dialogue. Both the Papadakis Building, designed by Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt, and the two towers of Chestnut Square, designed by New York firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects, injected the corners with new energy by claiming space right up to the sidewalk’s edge. Penn’s ambitious New College House, a student housing complex designed by the Philadelphia firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson that opened last fall, undulates along Chestnut from 33rd to 34th Street and reframes Hill Field with a gently sloping front lawn and inviting, diagonal pathway that dives west into the leafy green of Penn’s campus. The Study at University City, a 10-story, in slate brick, commands the fourth corner. Designed by another Philadelphia architectural firm, Digsau, the hotel held its soft opening and began accepting reservations last week. The Study is the second in a successful concept created by Hospitality 3 (following the Study at Yale in New Haven) designed to attract a sophisticated, educated clientele while reflecting the brainy, youthful culture that the two universities generate.

The Study at University City, a 10-story boutique hotel designed to attract clientele to Penn and Drexel’s campuses, began accepting reservations last week. | Photo: Michael Bixler

It is no accident that the buildings on all four corners forge a strong visual connection with Center City, a continuity enhanced by Chestnut Street’s eastward flow. For instance, the Study’s striking, if sober, dark blue color—purposely neither Drexel orange or Penn red—is an intentional wink at the PSFS building 20 blocks away, says project architect Jeff Goldstein of Digsau. The buildings as a whole don’t exactly match, but they don’t clash either. Each has its own distinct voice and perspective to offer.

Penn and Drexel did not begin their institutional lives as neighbors. The original Drexel Technical Institute, the exuberantly ornamented yellow brick behemoth at 31st and Chestnut, was built close to the railroad lines, factories, and warehouses that lined the west bank of the Schuylkill River. Industrial in origin and practical in purpose, Drexel was nearly half a mile away from Penn’s College Hall and Logan Hall, the university’s original West Philadelphia buildings. Separating the two institutions was a dense neighborhood of gridded streets lined with row houses, churches, and storefronts. There was even a large hotel, The Bartram, that occupied the exact spot Penn’s New College House now claims. The neighborhood was reshaped over the course of the 20th century as both universities expanded, Drexel mostly north and west and Penn in seemingly every direction. Their borders finally met in the early 1960s. A Philadelphia map from 1962 shows the property lines of the two institutions facing each other across 33rd Street. For both Drexel and Penn, 33rd and Chestnut was a marginal campus edge. Aerial photographs from the 1950s and 1960s show much of that land occupied by parking lots. The diagonal cut of Woodland Avenue, erased by Penn when the trolley tracks were buried, still cut through the Drexel campus in the 1960s, though it was closed to traffic. One photograph shows a few lone row houses huddled together on a mostly bare block, fronting a strip of street that leads nowhere.

Drexel continues to soften up its signature bleak hardscape with creative place making and landscape design. | Photo: Michael Bixler

As the two institutions grew closer, geographically, they asserted their differences—in culture, ethos, educational approach, and financial resources—in the style and material of their buildings and the landscaping of their campuses. Although College Hall and Logan Hall, Penn’s oldest buildings, were constructed in grey-green serpentine stone, the red brick Fisher Fine Arts Library, designed by Frank Furness, became the dominant Penn color and material. Drexel, taking its cues from its yellow founding building, favored a tangy midcentury orange.

Although Penn’s boundaries stretched closer to Center City, the campus in the 1960s and 1970s cultivated a green, park-like interior. New buildings along the borders of Walnut and Spruce, like Van Pelt Library and Williams Hall, turned their backs on the street. Penn became a protected sanctuary of shady walkways and ivy-entwined trellises. Even Hill Field, the green patch abutting Drexel’s campus, was enclosed by a chain-link fence.

Drexel, as a technical institute with more pragmatic, working class roots, favored a grittier aesthetic. The hard edges of its architecture, the unrelenting concrete of its open spaces, and the monochromatic palette of orange brick routinely earned Drexel a top position on the media’s annual lists of “Ugliest Campuses in America.” Drexel may have offered more open and public spaces than Penn in the 1970s, but the bleakness of its spaces made few people, including its students, want to spend time there.

Penn began to reurbanize in the 1990s during the administration of president Judith Rodin, and Drexel reinvented itself as a residential university with an international student body. Yet at the junction, 33rd and Chestnut, the two campuses continued to express a relative indifference to one another. Drexel’s buildings, occupying three of the four corners at 33rd and Chestnut, were all set back from the street. Penn’s Hill Field, with the fences removed and long-buried Woodland Avenue resurrected as a pedestrian path, became an informal buffer ground between the two universities, used primarily by both Drexel and Penn students to toss Frisbees and kick soccer balls.

Drexel’s Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building was the first building to initiate the lively dialogue happening now at 33rd and Chestnut. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Drexel activated the intersection first in 2011. The bright white Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building boldly broke free from Drexel’s signature orange brick. The curved glass and steel corner tower evoked lighthouses and watchtowers, and the new building asserted its role as a gateway to drivers entering Center City. The building quite effectively reflected Drexel’s confidence and ambition, while, incidentally, forcing the pedestrian heading southwest from 30th Street Station (toward Penn) to take notice of the Drexel campus. The Papadakis building, named for the late former president of the university, Constantine Papadakis, widely credited with launching this new era of Drexel’s growth, cut off the diagonal of Woodland Walk, a direct line of connection from 30th Street Station to Penn’s campus.

As Drexel continues to transform into a residential university, university planners have steered away from showy architectural statements. Instead, they have turned to landscape design and programmatic planning to reanimate existing buildings and spaces and ultimately to enhance Drexel’s reputation. As built forms go the two squat residential towers of Chestnut Square, composed of white corrugated concrete blocks, are banal at best. But here blandness may be a virtue. Flanking the mid-century Mandell Theater, the towers have enlivened what was once a bleak concrete wasteland into a lively streetscape with a broad, welcoming plaza mid-block. Restaurants, a coffee shop, a Shake Shack, and the campus bookstore have brought commerce, foot traffic, and energy to the 3200 block of Chestnut Street. “The idea of bringing shops here was just genius,” says Nancy Trainer, associate vice president of planning and design, who came to Drexel just as the project neared completion. She applauds her predecessors for “finding hidden value in the front yard.”

The lesson of Drexel’s new presence on Chestnut Street is that inventive urban planning and close attention to what happens at street level can overcome a multitude of architectural sins. As a mark of the university’s identity, Chestnut Square testifies to Drexel’s ingenuity in reshaping some of its problematic spaces without major upheaval by using the materials already at hand to create something brazen, exciting, and new.

Business in the front, party in the back. Penn’s New College House keeps a poker face along Chestnut Street while showing its true nature down 33rd and along Woodland Walk. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In contrast, Penn’s New College House aims for architectural virtuosity. Its immense scale and the intricate, appealing variety of its textures, shapes, and materials are indeed attractive, but as urban presence the complex conveys an air of reserve. It listens to the crackling dialogue at the street corner while half of its mind is drifting westward to pressing matters at the university. Conceived as an “instigator of community,” according to university architect David Hollenberg, the living-learning center is forced to play many roles. Stylistically, the L-shaped building carries the weight of Penn tradition even as it aims to push out toward the university’s eastern edge and connect to Center City. Its list of tasks—serve as an urban edge, a welcoming green gateway, a collective living-learning environment, a student shelter, and an attractive neighbor—is a tall order. “The New College House is both inviting and secure, open and private, embodying the comfort of home, and the power to form a campus gateway worthy of this place,” says Frank Grauman, design principal of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s Philadelphia office.

Inside Penn’s New College House. Photos by Michael Bixler.

The project succeeds on most counts. In its lush materials—limestone, brick, glass, steel, and planks of golden wood—and playful shapes—undulating curves to sharp angles and jutting corners—the building quotes and echoes the architectural grace notes of other Penn buildings, particularly the Law School directly to the west. University planners and the building’s architects made a conscious decision not to follow Drexel’s lead along Chestnut Street, however. The northern façade ripples with charm down the long block between 33rd and 34th, but the long wall still reads as a barricade. A single opening ostensibly connects Chestnut to Woodland Walk, but that connection requires pedestrians to ascend one flight of stairs and descend another; not the most open or direct route (the pedestrian who climbs through, however, is rewarded by a warm, multilevel courtyard, a quiet place for studying or a rendezvous). But who would want to walk down that dull stretch of Chestnut Street anyway when the New College House’s front lawn is so inviting? There, the rolling expanse of old Hill Field and the slightly curving walkway is lined with trees and stone benches that commemorates 125 years of women at Penn. The lawn and landscaping, designed by Michael Vergason, extends a gracious welcome to all, whether heading deeper into Penn’s campus, now marked by a commanding sign, or east toward the density of Drexel.

Woodland Walk is the key to connecting Penn, Drexel, West Philadelphia, and Center City. It follows the line that was once Woodland Avenue, a well-trafficked street that brought trolley cars clanging through both campuses. The history of Woodland Avenue’s suppression, erasure, and revival as campus spine is worthy of its own written treatment. Here, the road’s presence is noteworthy as a third path that cuts across the 33rd and Chestnut intersection, culminating (or originating, depending on your orientation) at 30th Street Station. Closed to cars, Woodland Walk generates the foot traffic crucial to making the urbanized crossroads at 33rd and Chestnut work.

Insert mid-block crosswalk here? Students scurry to and from the apartments and shops inside the two towers of Drexel’s Chestnut Square. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Papadakis Integrated Sciences building disrupts the fluid line and blocks what would have been a grand, ceremonial vista of 30th Street Station. However, the path continues with a slight jog around the building that opens onto an unexpected wild oasis of native plants and grasses crossed by a rustic bridge. Diamond Schmitt, with help from Stantec Engineers, brought the woods back to Woodland Walk to help soften the hard angles and harsh materials of Drexel’s campus.

The Study at University City draws its energy from Woodland Walk’s diagonal as well. The upper block of the hotel sits slightly askew on its rectilinear bases, acknowledging the slant of the walkway. That subtle inclination away from the grid, along with the textured brick, and the offbeat palette sets The Study apart from the two campuses. It does not blend in, but it doesn’t ostentatiously stick out either. The hotel is at once playful and grown-up in its demeanor, a benign arbiter in the Penn-Drexel interplay. By spring, when its rooms are booked, and diners at Co-op, the corner restaurant, spill out onto the sidewalk, when the gallery there showcases student artwork, and the boxwood and paperbark birch trees planted by the Philadelphia landscape architecture firm Studio Bryan Hanes begin to fill out, the Study will enhance the lively dance at these four corners. Late April, during the Penn Relays, will be an early test of this new urban crossroads now set to bloom into a gateway and gathering place all at once.

About the author

Ann de Forest has written frequently about design, architecture, and the built environment for the Philadelphia Inquirer, ID Magazine, and Attaché, among other publications. Her short stories have been published in Cleaver, The Journal, Hotel Amerika, Timber Creek Review, and PIF. She teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-13 and adults over 70 and is writing a time travel trilogy for middle grade readers involving old maps.



4 Comments


  1. Nice article, Ann. I remember being very unsure of the goals for Drexel’s plan to build residence towers on the south side of Chestnut Street. While it was always a shame that their existing buildings were pushed so far back, I couldn’t envision how the new buildings would fit in. A few years later, once they were open, I found myself walking south on Chestnut Street and rounding the corner and totally getting it. The creation of that urban edge was/is so important. I’ve not been back to this intersection since the last of the barricades came down (assuming that has happened – it’s been tough to navigate there for a number of years). This article will inspire me to do so soon.

  2. Ann, you are much too nice to Penn in this article. The college house’s treatment of Chestnut Street is shameful and downright ignorant given the important of this street to our City, in both functional and historical senses. Penn could’ve helped Chestnut Street blossom into a multi-block avenue that provides some degree of a sense of “place”, as does its own Walnut Street from 34th to 38th. And while not all is lost since the opposite side of 3300 Chestnut remains undeveloped (other than the hotel parcel), it appears that Penn’s administrators STILL have no sense that ALL PARTS of University City should someday be places in which one can enjoy living and belonging. To them, outside of the Locust walk core, U.City is just a monopoly board on which to plop buildings to house needed functions. And beautiful as these buildings sometimes are (sometimes not!), they reveal that “Penn vs. the City” mentality that strangely persists. Penn is just setting itself up for $$$$ that’ll need to be spent on re-do’s. Decades down the line, when a great many of the urban Univ. neighborhoods all over the U.S. will have been be developed into fantastic places, our University City will find itself in a quagmire of mediocrity, a patchwork of living blocks abutting dead blocks throughout. Who would’ve ever imagined that Drexel, not Penn, would first learn how to see the full potential of its surroundings? Not me. But boy am I glad that they do. – A Philadelphian & Penn grad

  3. No view of 30th Street Station ever was or could be possible from 33rd Street at Chestnut.

  4. A fuller story of the history of the walkway can be read at:
    http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/women/hillsq.html

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