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Kelly Writer's house celebrates its 25th anniversary beginning Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. Credit: Derek Wong

For 25 years, the Kelly Writers House  — a community hub located at 3805 Locust Walk that features mismatched wooden chairs, a kitchen stocked with tea, and lots of public programming — has opened its door to artists. This weekend, it's celebrating that milestone.

On Oct. 21 and 22, KWH is celebrating its 25th anniversary with three events, starting with an informal party from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday. Two events are planned for Saturday — an Open House and a reception, which will showcase 10 KWH affiliates speaking about the impact the community has had on them.

According to KWH founder and Faculty Director Al Filreis, KWH is best known for its events, which host a wide variety of authors, artists, and other creatives. The monthly Speakeasy Open Mic Night initiative, which began in the fall of 1997, is the house's oldest ongoing tradition. KWH also offers student internships through the RealArts program, as well as several grants and prizes that fund students’ creative endeavors. 

KWH also has a recruiting program that seeks out prospective students from around the country who show interest and demonstrate talent in writing during high school. When College senior Kendall Owens submitted a poetry piece to a magazine in high school, the editor — who is a Penn alum — referred her to a recruiter, she said. Owens began working at KWH as a first year through the work-study program.

“As a freshman, it was just kind of a place to work. But over the years, this is kind of my home,” Owens said. “I'm here all the time, just to hang out with people, to see what food we have in our snack bin. And it's just a place that I can call my home— like a home away from home.”

Jessica Lowenthal, who has been the director of the Kelly Writers House since 2005, also said that KWH feels like a home — in fact, many of the pots and pans in the KWH kitchen are from her own house.

“The domestic nature of the rooms encourages a kind of relating that is less institutional and more home-like,” Lowenthal said.

According to Filreis, the “home-like” feel is vital and intentional — KWH deliberately avoided building lecture halls or auditoriums even as it expanded. Filreis and other founders laid out what the purpose of each room would be in 1995, and their original purposes stand true today.

“All along, we had this idea that architecture is destiny. That if you create a space — a physical space — that is conducive to the kind of learning that [we’ve] been striving for, then you will create it by the very architecture,” Filreis said. “Too often when we're trying to teach people in innovative ways, we are fighting against the architecture.”

Program Coordinator Alli Katz said that architecture also serves to level the playing field between esteemed guests — writers who have won Pulitzers, or even Nobel Prizes — and students who are beginning their careers. 

Undergraduates perform in the same space, even with the same audio setup, as accomplished artists. Fileris said that this is a part of KWH’s mission to never place one artist above the other.

“We don't want a famous person standing up and everybody else sitting quietly in an audience. We want conversation, we want noise, we want interaction,” Filreis said. “There are no lectures at the Writers House. Whatever the opposite of a lecture is, is what we do every day. The opposite of a lecture is a conversation that's exploratory and improvisational.”

This commitment to breaking down barriers between students and teachers, novices and experts, and the University and the surrounding community reflects the original mission statement written by the KWH founders in 1995 to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere that fosters growth.

“It just feels really good to be able to find a position to say ‘yes’ again and again and again to students and community members,” Katz said. “A lot of positions everywhere are about saying ‘no’ first. This is about trying your best to say yes.”