For a couple of years after graduating from Penn in 1980, I lived in a run-down apartment in a beautiful old Victorian house on the 4000 block of Pine Street. Among the things I loved about living there were the old buildings and big trees, which gave the block a feeling of charm and hominess in spite of its close proximity to the bustling campus and big city.
Even the somewhat run-down nursing home at 400 S. 40th Street, on the southwest corner of 40th and Pine, was part of this ambience — the strong lines and beauty of the Italianate architecture readily shone through the various concrete additions that had been appended to it over the years.
It made sense when I learned that the building was designed by Samuel Sloan, a renowned architect from the Victorian era who has been mostly forgotten today. Sloan was also the architect of the house I lived in next, around the corner on Woodland Terrace. For six years I was able to walk out my door onto one of the most spectacular blocks in West Philadelphia, which is well worthy of the preservation efforts and historic registrations that have been bestowed on it.
So, of course I was saddened, if not surprised, by the University’s plans to demolish 400 S. 40th Street in order to build apartments on the site. Saddened, because although the building seems decrepit on the outside, on the inside it is full of beautiful architectural details that are worth preserving. Unsurprised, because the University has been exerting its strong will in the neighborhood in this way, tearing into the very fabric that makes it a special place to live, for nearly half a century now.
When Drexel University expanded on Market Street around the Centennial Bank designed by Frank Furness, it chose not to tear that building down (although it sat decrepit and ignored for many years), but instead restore it to its former glory.
Surely if Drexel can do it, Penn could do the same with a similarly decrepit but similarly significant architectural gem in its own domain. A dormitory can be put anywhere, but a gem like this building, once lost, is gone forever.
One would have thought the historic preservation lesson made by the sad destruction of the old Penn Station in New York, in the 1950s, would not have to be relearned over and over again. But of course, it does, because expediency and economy are so often deemed more important than history.
Adam Levine is a 1980 College graduate from Media, PA. He is an environmental historian, journalist and author who lives in He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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