Academic journal article Change Over Time

The Spirit of Campus Past

Academic journal article Change Over Time

The Spirit of Campus Past

Article excerpt

Just before it Crosses Hill Field at the northeast edge of the University of Pennsylvania, Woodland Walk passes between two unremarkable red brick structures, a Tudorbethan fraternity house and a brick academic building. Most students, if they notice the buildings at all, would probably describe them as "pretty old." In fact, the fraternity, designed by the Philadelphia firm, Thomas, Churchman & Molitor, was built more than a century ago, but the second building is almost brand new.

The McNeil Center for Early American Studies was built in 2005 (Fig. 1). The longtime benefactor of the program, Robert L. McNeil, Jr., wanted the center's new home to reflect its academic mission, and it is rumored that his initial preference was a Williamsburg- type replica of a Colonial house. Instead, Robert A. M. Stern Architects produced an original - albeit traditional - design. The building is small, only forty-one by onehundred feet in plan and two stories high with a slate hipped roof. A central bay, corresponding to the entrance hall, protrudes very slightly in the front; a conference room creates a six-foot-deep projection at the rear. The brick bond is Flemish. The plainness of the tripartite façades is relieved by a water table and a limestone stringcourse. The only classical element is an architrave supported by two Tuscan columns framing the entrance.

The style of the McNeil Center is Federal, an American version of the Adam style that was derived from the architecture of Scottish architects Robert and James Adam. Although the heyday of Federal was from 1780 to 1820, the style resurfaced during the Colonial Revival of the late nineteenth century, and has never entirely gone out of fashion, particularly in the Northeast. The most attractive feature of Federal buildings is their simplicity and delicacy. They are typically uncomplicated boxes, usually brick, and derive their architectural character chiefly from their well-proportioned, evenly spaced windows, and a strong sense of symmetry. The few judiciously placed classical details are usually confined to doorways.

In choosing the Federal style Stern was not being physically contextual, since there are no Federal Revival buildings on the Penn campus. But the McNeil Center could be said to be historically contextual since Philadelphia is the site of some the finest Federal-style buildings in the country. These include the Hill-Physick- Keith House (1786), sometimes attributed to Samuel Rhoads, Congress Hall (1787-89), and the U.S. Supreme Court (1790-91), which flank Independence Hall, and the central pavilion of Pennsylvania Hospital, designed by David Evans, Jr., in 1794. Although the delicate ornament and domestic scale of the Hill-Physick-Keith House might have served as models for McNeil, Stern turned to a more obscure precedent, although one that had a direct connection to the University.1 In the 1790s, in an unsuccessful bid to retain the national capital in Philadelphia, the city built a large mansion at Ninth and Market Streets to serve as the President's residence. In 1800, the house was bought by the University of Pennsylvania when it moved its campus from its original location on Fourth and Arch. The mansion was remodeled by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Six years later, he added a two-story wing to house the Medical Department, the first of its kind in the country. Latrobe was an eclectic who worked in a variety of styles. Though the medical wing was demolished in 1874, several period illustrations show a Federal-style brick box with uncomplicated massing, a flattened tripartite composition, no classical details, and a hipped roof (Fig. 2). While Latrobe's design is largely windowless, since the building contained two stacked lecture halls, its "very plain" exterior (Latrobe's description) obviously influenced Stern.

It is only in the last decade that historically inspired buildings such as the McNeil Center have reappeared on American campuses. "Reappeared" because it was historic styles that formed the architectural foundation for the best collegiate ensembles such as the University of Virginia (Classical), William and Mary (Georgian), Stanford (Richardsonian Romanesque), and Princeton and Yale (Gothic). …

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