Evolution And Influence At Penn’s Hill College House

January 22, 2014 | by Fátima Olivieri


Hill House with 'drawbridge' | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

Hill House with ‘drawbridge’ | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

University campuses have a long history of shaping the landscape where they reside, particularly when the campus maintains an urban context. Universities tend to bring with them new architectural styles, construction, and urban growth. The development of higher education institutions have significantly formed Philadelphia’s own urban boundary and skyline. In West Philadelphia, for example, the purchase and subsequent move of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus from 9th and Market to the easternmost part of West Philadelphia in 1870 set the tone for the development of that neighborhood (now deemed University City). At that time, that part of West Philadelphia was considered a part of the suburbs. Drexel University soon followed suit, establishing its Main Building on the corner of 32nd and Chestnut Streets in 1891. The impact that these two institutions had on the area is not insignificant. The population of West Philadelphia grew from 13,265 in 1850, just before its consolidation with Philadelphia proper, to 330,286 people at its peak in 1950. Similarly, the founding of Temple University in 1884 had a significant impact on the way North Philadelphia, particularly with how the Broad Street corridor has developed—and is still developing.

The mockup of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's New College House shows a clear influence from Saarinen's Hill House next door | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

The mockup of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s New College House shows a clear influence from Saarinen’s Hill House next door | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

Of the various building models that universities have introduced to the city, student housing, particularly in recent years, has made a huge visible impact. In 2013 alone, high-rise student dorms opened at two of the three major universities; Drexel finished Chestnut Square dorm by the firm of Robert A.M. Stern and Temple University completed its Morgan Hall complex by MGA Partners. Now fully under construction, New College House is set to be the newest residence at University of Pennsylvania’s campus. Located on the corner of 33rd and Chestnut and designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the 198,000 sq ft undergraduate complex takes its cues from another Penn student housing complex, the Hill College House next door.

Eero Saarinen, the Finnish American architect widely recognized for his design of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Washington Dulles International Airport, crafted plans for Hill College House, Penn’s modernist women’s dormitory completed in 1960. But while its design comes from a top tier architect, Hill has had its share of criticism: small windows, lack of ventilation, a fortress-like aesthetic with its back turned to the street. Considering its original intent as a women’s dormitory, many of the criticisms stem from the architecture’s root in the social and cultural norms of the time—a spatial representation from a drastically different epoch, where the strict separation of men and women existed, especially in a college setting. Although women had enrolled in Penn classrooms since the late 19th century, residential makeup was still divided by gender, and men’s visits to women’s living spaces were highly controlled.

During the 1950s, an insurgence of female students enrolling in American universities necessitated an evolution of the college campus. With coed dorms still a ways off—Oberlin College built the first one in 1970—this influx triggered the construction of women’s dormitories across the country. Eero Saarinen won commissions to design three of these female dormitories; Emma Hartman Noyes House at Vassar College (1954), Hill College House at the University of Pennsylvania (1957), and Woodward Court at the University of Chicago (built 1958, demolished 2001). Although all three dorms shared architectural and cultural approach similarities, Hill College House’s designed was considered to be the most restrictive.

Initially housing 656 women, the inward facing design was attributed both to its inner city location and to the desire of creating a “sanctuary” for its residents. From the exterior, Hill House appears as a rectangular modernist castle sitting in the landscape; its entry bridge designed by Saarinen as a way to work with the topography of the site, but also suggests a playful drawbridge across a moat, working in concert with a spiked roof to keep men at bay.

Though simple, the alternating horizontal-vertical pattern of tapered windows is very distinct | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

Though simple, the alternating horizontal-vertical pattern of tapered windows is very distinct | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

To Saarinen, it was important that a new building in an existing campus be “in harmony with the outdoor space and with existing buildings of other times.” In using brick, Saarinen wanted to create a link between his building and others on campus, particularly Frank Furness’ Fisher Fine Arts Library. He used clinker bricks, known as such for their irregular shape and dark colors that give texture and color variation to the façades. Though considered small in comparison to contemporary dorm windows, the tapered horizontal & vertical casement windows were meant to allow for ventilation and a range of views. At that time, the building was not air conditioned, something that remains unchanged, to the chagrin of current residents. In the 1960s, dorms rarely saw much use outside of the traditional academic year, so it was common for buildings of that era to only have heating. Currently, window units inset into the horizontal windows interrupt the façades of the building in order to accommodate a warmer climate.

The blank, opposite wall now houses N.C. Wyeth's An Apotheosis of Franklin | Original photo by Saarinen photographer Balthazar Korab, courtesy of the Library of Congress

The blank, opposite wall now houses N.C. Wyeth’s An Apotheosis of Franklin | Original photo by Saarinen photographer Balthazar Korab, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Inside Hill’s heavy brick walls, its five-story, light-filled atrium tells a different tale. Student rooms and circulation spaces open onto the atrium, emphasizing a sense of community. Its white walls and wood shutters create a warm, stark contrast to the cold, dark brick of the exterior. And since 1978, it’s been the home of N.C. Wyeth’s An Apotheosis of Franklin, a mural commissioned in 1926 for Franklin Savings Bank of New York City.

The atrium also brings natural light to common spaces on lower levels such as the dining room and recreation room. All that open space has an interesting footnote: Saarinen originally intended it to be an open courtyard, but after reasoning that an outdoor space would see little use during most of the academic year, he enclosed it. Hidden from the street, one only discovers the spacious atrium upon entrance into the building.

Despite its dated, anti-urban treatment, it’s undeniable that Hill College House—a coed residence since the 1970s—has influenced its surroundings. Fifty-four years after its completion, Saarinen’s detailing and façade composition are still studied. BCJ’s New College House clearly gives a nod to its modernist neighbor, namely the horizontal windows inset onto a tapered brick façade.

Though sometimes more successfully than not, Hill College House has found ways to transcend its initial purposes and adapt to drastic changes in student lifestyles.


About the Author

Fátima Olivieri A native of Puerto Rico, Fátima Olivieri is a designer/writer who has called Philadelphia home since early 2011. Prior to moving to the city, Fátima worked at an architecture firm in Charlottesville, VA and taught at the University of Virginia School Of Architecture, where she graduated with her Master of Architecture in 2010. She currently works at an architecture firm in Center City and has been guest critic at various architecture schools in the area.


  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is a very well written and researched piece; it was very interesting to learn more about the history of Hill. However, though Hill might be historically and architecturally significant, speaking from experience, it is a nightmare to live in. In the rooms and hallways (i.e. everywhere but the atrium), it is dark and stuffy, with little light entering, and no air circulation. All the walls are cinder-block, and mice and cockroaches are rampant. Everyone at Penn dreads having to live there, and the only positive things about it are that the staff is lovely, and residents form strong communities and bond over the cramped and uncomfortable living spaces. So although it might be historically significant, I (and most students) would argue the structure contributes little to nothing to the university, especially the poor freshman who are forced to live there each year.

  2. Mike says:

    A wonderfully written piece on a building that housed a very supportive community which helped shape my life when I was a student living there in the mid-90s. I had access to copies of the original blueprints which I used for an AutoCAD project, and I was very impressed with many of the specific details of Saarinen’s design, right down to the original furnishings and light fixtures.

    I respectfully disagree with some of Elizabeth’s comments, as hundreds of first-year students purposely choose to live in Hill every year. While the building has some flaws that don’t conform with 21st-century living, the design encourages students to gather in common spaces and enhances the sense of community. Hill arguably has the closest-knit community experience among all of Penn’s College Houses.

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