Coney Island boardwalk helps reconstruct Steinberg-Dietrich trellis

When it became apparent that Steinberg Hall-Dietrich Hall’s iconic trellis along Locust Walk needed replacing, the hunt began to find a hard wood that would stand up to local temperature extremes and the punishment of wisteria vines.

Ipe wood (pronounced ee-pay) salvaged from the reconstruction of the Coney Island boardwalk—pre-Hurricane Sandy—fit the bill.

University Architect David Hollenberg credits an “alert design team member” for suggesting the cast-off ipe. “It’s really a good wood, robustly sized, perfect for heavy use and exterior exposure,” he says. “It has begun to turn up in salvage yards as more and more seaside municipalities are turning to concrete and recycled plastic.”

“There’s a real market for it,” Hollenberg adds, explaining that the floor of the central space at the new LEED-platinum Barnes Foundation is also made of Coney Island boardwalk. “It’s rich and sumptuous.”

Mark Kocent, Penn’s principal planner, notes that the University also used ipe in the small bridge along the 125 Years of Women at Penn walkway that crosses Hill Field. “It’s a very hard wood; we had to put antiskid material on the bridge, but it will last a considerably long time.”

The original trellis at Steinberg-Dietrich was made of untreated red cedar, Hollenberg says. “It’s amazing it lasted as long as it did. Wisteria can be punishing to a trellis; the vine grows quickly and vigorously. It can be destructive.”

Kocent says the original Dietrich Hall, built in 1950, was fronted by a big open space filled with umbrella tables and lots of sun. “To accommodate Wharton’s need for more space in the 1980s, we decided to do an infill.”

Unfortunately, the Steinberg addition featured a solid brick wall facing Locust Walk. The University was dissatisfied with the blank façade and insisted on adding a pergola to soften the building. Laurie Olin, renowned local landscape architect and Penn faculty member, designed it.

Hollenberg says the present-day design team reused Olin’s original construction drawings, and contractors refurbished and repainted the trellis’ hardware, reassembling it using the salvaged ipe.

“What’s particularly interesting,” Hollenberg notes, “is that Olin is still on the faculty of PennDesign and is in the rare position of watching a reconstruction of his former construction.”

The entire Steinberg-Dietrich renovation is scheduled for completion this summer, although two large classrooms were opened this semester at Wharton’s request, explains Jennifer Wetzel, director of design and construction. “The two classrooms have a safe, separate entrance.”

An additional 32 offices are being built above the classrooms, and a new landscaped plaza will feature a fountain.

Although it took longer than was planned, the trellis is now finished, awaiting the wisteria’s entwining vines.

“It’s beautiful wood,” Hollenberg says. “It just glows.”