Samantha Sharf | Looking beyond Hill’s ‘ugly’ facade
Elements of Style | Should a building be judged on its aesthetics or on its history?
November 8, 2011, 11:36 pm·
Elements of Style
I begin this column in the reading room of the Fisher Fine Arts Library. As I write, a large group of visitors wanders into the space and looks up, their eyes wide and mouths ajar as they examine architect Frank Furness’ stunning design.
It is difficult to imagine a comparable scene taking place less than a block northeast at Hill College House. Clad in rough brick and pierced with dozens of tiny windows, Hill is ugly and uninviting at first glance. However, designed by celebrated mid-century architect Eero Saarinen, the building also abounds with historical significance. Saarinen was famous for incorporating historical references into his very modern designs and for his strong belief that a building should complement its surroundings. Here, Saarinen alludes to a medieval fortress by including a moat and metal cornice. With Hill’s brick facade, he mirrors existing Penn landmarks.
After developing a deep respect for Saarinen’s work through a course on modern architecture, I have struggled to reconcile the clash between its appearance and its history.
Should a building be judged on its aesthetics or on the acclaim of its architect? The space seems to embody my internal debate.
Whether drawn to the dorm’s dining hall by hunger or required to live in one of its tiny doubles by rooming assignment, each day hundreds of students wander over the bridge that leads to the dorm. Once inside, they are met by a surprisingly bright and welcoming public atrium.
Saarinen’s design creates what University Architect David Hollenberg calls a “hierarchy of social interactions.” Small personal rooms force occupants into spaces designed for connections between residents. Many of these living-room-type spaces look out to the large atrium and dining hall that is open to the entire Penn community.
Molly Lester, a graduate adviser in Hill and masters candidate in historic preservation, notes, “Life happens out in the open here.”
Laura DiPasquale, also a Hill GA and graduate student studying historic preservation, admits she was intimidated by the building’s harsh exterior but loves the community she has found in the house.
Architecture enthusiasts aren’t the only people taking part in this debate. This conflict is also reflected in conversations that have been going on across campus since the building opened as a female dorm in 1960.
In their book Building America’s First University, professors George Thomas and David Brownlee detail an early rumor that Hill’s rooms are so small because a study had found that women require less space than men. No study on this topic was ever completed, let alone factored into Hill’s construction.
As the possibility of a new college house on Hill Field becomes a topic of campus conversation, this debate has taken on new resonance. The Daily Pennsylvanian recently printed an article discussing the University’s search for a naming donor for the dorm, which would sit just north of the existing structure. Reader comments on theDP.com question the future of Saarinen’s design. One, who posted under the name “A speaker of sad truths,” wrote, “Hill can’t be torn down — it’s so ugly that it got historic building listing. Hopefully, the University will take the opportunity to seriously renovate the building!”
Hollenberg, Lester and DiPasquale agree that Hill is in need of some love. And although it is not listed on the National or Philadelphia Registries of Historic Places, it ranks highly on the University’s internal List of Cultural Resources. In other words, Hill is here to stay.
The University is about to commence what Hollenberg described as a “scope development study” with the goal of creating a to-do list for future renovation. It will look to answer questions like: Should there be more singles? Can more elevators be integrated into the space? Hollenberg explained that the building is very tightly designed and the floor-to-floor height is low, making electrical improvements — like air conditioning — difficult.
As a freshman, I did not suffer Hill’s cramped quarters or lack of air conditioning — I lived in the Quad. But one of the wonders of Penn’s campus is the diversity of architectural gems that populate it, hidden histories waiting to be uncovered. Hill may not be pretty or comfortable, but it is a strong example of its time and the work of its architect. We are lucky to have it.
Not every building has to be universally loved. Even many Frank Furness designs were torn down before the Fine Arts Library became a tourist attraction.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.