Perry World House is an unconventional project for the University of Pennsylvania. Rather than demolish or simply connect new construction to the existing 164 year old Samuel Sloan-designed Gothic Revival house, Penn campus architect David Hollenberg and planners in the University’s facilities department have elected to partially preserve the building at 38th and Locust Walk. By removing the eastern half of the house and fusing it with a new building, Hollenberg says the end product will be a kind of built “collage.” This approach is in stark contrast to Penn’s controversial decision to demolish the Sloan-designed mansion at 40th and Pine Streets. Penn has owned the Locust Walk house, last used as a fraternity house by Kappa Alpha and one of West Philadelphia’s older residential dwellings, since 1952. Jake Dreyfuss at Phillyliving.com has written a contextual history of the house, which you can read HERE.
The design by the New York and Frankfurt-based firm 1100 Architect for Perry World House–named after University Trustees and the project’s major donors Richard and Lisa Perry–follows an approach that is more prevalent in Europe to what might be called “hybrid preservation.” This is something quite new for Penn, to be echoed at the Pennovation Center at the Grays Ferry Crescent. When Perry World House is finished in early 2016, the $17.85 million, 17,393 gross square foot finished product will be the university’s hub for international research and global policy, fostering discussion of global issues and international engagement among the faculty and students of Penn’s 12 schools. The facility will include a 150-seat hall for lectures by visiting policymakers and international scholars, a large classroom and conference room, considerable flex space, and 14 offices for staff and visiting scholars. The entrance will feature a landscaped outdoor gathering space.
I sat down with David Hollenberg to discuss this hybrid approach to preservation.
Michael Bixler: What guided the decision to take an old, beat up Samuel Sloan house, one of the few by the antebellum architect that haven’t been torn down, and incorporate it into a new design?
David Hollenberg: Before the potential reuse of that building was even identified, there was a fraternity that was moving out and we wanted to explore what the site could take. We did a feasibility study, which was odd in that it was not being done around any particular use. It was more of an urban design study about what kind of relationship to 38th and Locust a project would have if we replaced the building and about how much the site could take.
A lot of the campus thought that there was some benefit towards reusing the house, or portions of the house, but that was not a universally held opinion. The house was on the domestic end of a residential scale, and therefore didn’t have the kind of spaces and kinds of uses you would imagine practical.
MB: It’s a building with such low density.
DH: It was very low density–very small rooms, and a low ceiling. It hadn’t been lovingly treated by the fraternity who occupied it either. It had a lot of additions that we felt could be removed that were not original to the building. The first feasibility study option resulted in a diagram of the whole site cleared and replaced with a new building, and showing what volume might be appropriate from an urban design standpoint. The second diagram showed what would be a potential way to incorporate new construction, plus retention of portions of the Sloan house.
We had conversations and waited for other powers on the campus to think about a plausible reuse for the building to emerge. The idea [that emerged] is that it would be called a World House, with this notion that it was a place that was intended to have a serious purpose that was also supposed to be comfortable. A place that would be approachable, that wasn’t an austere think tank that had nothing to do with the rest of the campus. I think that the decision came down to the fact that there was something very appealing about the place. There’s something about the front of the building that’s kind of an iconic house, which says “this is a house.”
MB: Especially being right next to Kelly Writer’s House.
DH: Yes, the adjacency to Kelly and the sort of roots of West Philadelphia architecture. Keeping the gabled roof icon with the beautiful little bay and everything was an identifier that this would be an approachable place. There is this notion that the campus simultaneously wants to look forward, while also doing a good, comprehensive preservation job across the campus. We’re trying to build on our ongoing tradition of good design while being good stewards–both physically and academically looking forward and backward. I think that people felt that keeping a portion of the house and keeping the most iconic and earliest portion of the house was the right kind of symbolism.
MB: The university has reused lots and lots of buildings and often seems committed to that. Though, it’s one thing to reuse a place like the old West Philadelphia Trust Title Building for the Perelman Center and another to take a portion of an historic building and fuse it with something new. Is this a new approach that may happen again or is it totally circumstantial?
DH: I think this is one off. The project is qualitatively different somehow from other projects where Penn has reused exiting buildings. The Music Building (Lerner Center) for example, or the Perelman Center, are two projects where the existing building, in one case locally designated, and in the other case, not, had an addition of roughly equivalent size. I’m troubled calling the Perry World House project an addition. I think that it’s a different kind of animal. Those two examples were careful and faithful restorations of the exterior of the properties, and sensitive rehabilitation of the interior, combined with a conscientious, but frankly contemporary new addition of roughly equivalent size. That’s a classical Penn addition. A reuse and addition kind of project.
With Perry House, the square footage of the new pieces is significantly more than the original, and for that reason alone I’m not sure if I like calling it an addition. I prefer calling it a new building that is incorporating portions of an older building. I mean, there’s been a lot of demolition there. If you walk by you can see how much has been removed.
That’s been a pretty troubling circumstance getting to the position where we found ourselves comfortable with doing that. There’s no project quite like it one on campus that has ever happened. From a design standpoint there is a certain standard format of old building, new building, separated by a glass connection. It’s a very useful cliché. It worked spectacularly at the Music Building. I think that it’s a little bit less blunt at the Perelman Center, but it’s also going to be quite beautiful. Perry, on the other hand, is almost a collage approach, with the new bluntly touching the old, with no glass hyphen.
MB: It’s like melding of the historic with new construction into some sort of hybrid compromise.
DH: I can’t point to any official preservation standard that this satisfies. I think that to some of the preservation community it probably goes beyond what you should be doing. I am most comfortable thinking about it as a piece of new construction that has a collage approach to it. The architects that are doing it have been looking at a lot at European examples with this sort of blunt collision of new and old, as opposed to this sort of glass connector which happens with a little bit more regularity and a little bit more comfort. It’s not a standard approach, and it has taken us a long time to get our arms around, especially when we’re removing small pieces of this building–that very much had to do with how the building reads historically, which was a very asymmetrical facade. Now we just have this gable piece just as a symbol of house and the architects have taken those gables and made very contemporary versions of them.
I really don’t know what are the right words to call this approach are. The interesting thing about this as a design problem is that when you turn to 38th Street, the scale explodes. I think that it’s a combination of symbolism, of looking forward and backward and doing a contemporary building that has kept a meaningful chunk of the existing building.
MB: Without a comprehensive, city-wide survey of the city’s historic assets there isn’t a clear picture of what should or shouldn’t be a priority for preservation, which is extraordinarily subjective in itself. What I find fascinating about this project is the decision to take a little worn down former frat house and, rather than knock it down, do something creative and new with it. Whether or not it ever happens again, it’s a unique approach to the nebulous quandary of what is worth saving and what’s not.
DH: When you walk around the campus you see something like the ARCH, which is as close to pure restoration that we’ve done since I’ve been here. We don’t do much demolition and haven’t really demolished a full building since I’ve been here. We did take off the rear ell of the Music Building after a year of agonizing about whether that was the right thing to do with the Historical Commission. With Perry World House, we took the decision really seriously and persuaded ourselves that it was worth giving up a wing of that building on behalf of a better design outcome. I think that we’re conscientious about the decisions that we make when we’re working with an existing building, even when it’s not designated “historic.” Why this particular Sloan is not locally designated, I have no idea. It’s surprising that it isn’t, but you can say that about thousands of buildings in this city that are not designated but could and should be.
MB:There’s so many that should be.
DH: I teach a graduate level preservation policy class at Penn Design, and I’ve taught a policy seminar for 15 of the 26 years I’ve been here. I’m fond of saying that there are 600,000 buildings or so in the city, and only about 20,000 are locally designated.
MB: And even then, with these hardship rulings in favor of developers, they aren’t truly protected.
DH: There’s only 100,000 on the National Register, so no one would say that represents the full inventory of things we should care about and it’s true at Penn too. We have our own inventory. One of the things that I often say in class, “how does public policy accomplish preservation, if the whole point of policy is to get something to happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise?” There are basically three ways. One way is to punish people for not doing the right thing, which is a historic commission model. You’re not going to get a building permit if they don’t like what you’re doing. The other is to give people money to persuade them, or assist them to getting towards a goal. That’s the historic tax credit approach, which more guarantees a historic preservation outcome by helping to pay for the unanticipated things that you discover when you’re working on a building. It’s been an incredibly successful approach in Philadelphia. We wouldn’t have the city that we have without the tax credits. The third is “let’s not mandate the outcome, let’s just mandate the seriousness about the conversation,” which is the 106 approach. It doesn’t say what’s supposed to happen, it doesn’t talk about if you’re going to end up with a preserved building at the end of the day, but it does require all of the parties to come together and take the question seriously.
I think that this project is really closest to the 106 approach. We’ve spent an amazing amount of time and money studying whether we should keep the existing building, and how best to incorporate it into a new design, doing historical research along the way. It has been a very serious and costly analysis. We’ve definitely had a preservation process in this project, though some might say that we don’t have a preservation outcome. I would debate that. The design is not some sort of capricious response. There have been many iterations that have kept more or less of the building, and I am perfectly comfortable with how we got to where we are. To me, it’s very important that we have had this conversation about a cultural resource.