A plaque outside of Houston Hall touts its historical significance as the oldest student union in the nation. Many students say they view the building as more of a dining area and study space than a hub of student activity, and Penn students and administrators are trying to change that.
Penn's student government and administrators have attempted to bring more student activity to Houston, and new initiatives to create more student programming in Houston have recently gained more traction. The Undergraduate Assembly has been meeting administrators over the past month to turn one of the two reading rooms into a recreation space.
Houston Hall underwent a multimillion dollar renovation in 2000, adding Houston Market. In response to student survey results, Penn created more performing arts and meeting spaces, Executive Director of Vice Provost of University Life Facilities Tom Hauber said.
College freshmen Karen Pan and Nichanun Puapattanakajorn consider Houston a study area rather than a place for student events.
“A lot of [rooms] are rented out by non-student organizations, so it kind of gives the illusion that [Houston Hall] is not a student union even if it’s supposed to be,” Pan said.
“It feels like a louder version of a library. There’s not really many student activities or really anything going on,” Puapattanakajorn added.
Pan said the building could better cater to students by hosting more events for students and publicizing that the events are taking place in Houston.
Although students do not see Houston Hall as a student union, the UA and building administrators have been working towards expanding student events and programming in the building for several years.
UA President and College senior Michael Krone said the Assembly wants to revitalize the space to make it “brighter and more welcoming,” like adding art or more modern furnishings. The goal, Krone said, is to make Houston Hall a more community-focused place where students would want to relax and spend time in.
In fall 2018, UA members met with Hauber and assistant director of VPUL facilities Laurie Hall and proposed the idea of converting one room in the building into a recreational room to draw more students into Houston.
Wharton and Engineering junior Nick Parkes, who is a member of the UA, said Hall was receptive to the idea, adding that Hall suggested the rest of the building could also be transformed to enliven the atmosphere.
Parkes added that making Houston Hall a more lively place on campus, however, goes beyond fostering a sense of community. He said a student union should also work to improve student wellness. Parkes said when he sits in a space, like Houston Hall, where everyone is already doing homework, he also feels obligated to do work.
“The whole goal is to create some sort of physical space that people could go and, like, watch ‘The Office’ without feeling judged," Parkes said.
Executive Director of the Office of Student Affairs Katie Bonner said administrators have made efforts in the past to bring more student activity into Houston Hall and that they also want students to associate Houston Hall as an events space, not just a dining or studying area.
To accomplish this, administrators installed a TV that is always kept on in the bistro section of the ground floor to generate background noise. In fall 2018, Student Health Service hosted an event in Houston for each of the 12 days leading up to final exams to help students destress.
One reason students do not gravitate toward Houston Hall to host or attend events, Bonner said, is because Penn's campus has expanded significantly since Houston Hall was built in 1896. She added that Houston Hal is not a central location on campus anymore.
Hall said she wants more students to be involved in planning events programming in Houston. Bonner said although student organizations do not typically think to hold club meetings and events in Houston's lobby, she still hopes more students will host events, such as open-mic nights, in the building.
“What I would like to see in a [student union] is a place where any student, regardless of what they're involved in or where they come from, knows that they can come [to Houston Hall] and find community,” Krone said.