The 130-year-old building was silent during its celebration, the deep-red brick providing a dramatic backdrop for the groundbreaking ceremony on a warm and misty fall afternoon.
But those on the stage next to the newly named Stuart Weitzman Hall had much to say about what its planned renovation and expansion will mean to the University of Pennsylvania and the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, including its lead supporter, Stuart Weitzman, the designer and footwear icon, who graduated from Penn in 1963.
“I’ve done a lot of things around campus, so you obviously know I love this school. I’m part of its heritage; it’s part of mine. I will continue to be part of it,” Weitzman said during the Oct. 25 event.
The structure, formerly known as the Morgan Building, was renamed in May when the School revealed plans for the renovation and expansion, which will double the existing space to as much as 38,500 square feet. The groundbreaking marked the official beginning of the project, now in the schematic design phase. Construction is scheduled to start in 2024 and be completed in 2025.
“One, two, three,” said Penn President Liz Magill before plunging a shiny shovel into a trough of dirt. Alongside Magill, wearing white hard hats and wielding shovels, were Weitzman School Dean Fritz Steiner, Weitzman, and Penn alum Matt Nord of the School’s Board of Advisors.
“The artful renovation of Stuart Weitzman Hall will provide a much-needed central space for design students to learn from world-renowned faculty, to engage in conversations and creative explorations, and to showcase the work that they have done together,” said Magill, noting that this is the first major capital project for the School in more than 50 years.
“It will be an optimal environment for art and design, education and research, and will promote connection and community,” she said. “It will spark creativity and serve as a launch pad for many new endeavors.”
In acknowledging the acclaimed designer, Magill playfully lifted her left foot, showing off her Stuart Weitzman brand shoes. “Stuart, we are grateful for your partnership and for your vision, for helping to breathe new life into this historic building in a way that’s going to inspire everyone who has contact with it,” she said, noting his “enduring commitment to the success of our students” and his “extraordinary support for the School.”
Steiner said the building will be a place for aspiring artists and architects, landscape architects and energy policy experts, urban planners and historic preservationists. “Students and faculty from across our curriculum will come together in light-filled studios and research hubs, state-of-the-art classrooms, and review spaces with dedicated galleries,” Steiner said, calling the architectural design one “that sets creativity free.”
Sharon Hayes, professor of fine arts, emphasized the “precious and precarious importance” of collaborative spaces for artists and designers and students, especially apparent after the “rupture” of the pandemic.
Often, she said, when she encounters student work, she finds they are “bringing something new into the world, something that does not yet exist, something that we can barely recognize. This transformative work is difficult. It requires hard work, persistence, and imagination but also faith and support and trust and permission. And indeed space. For artists and designers space is not abstractly or generally necessary but precisely and singularly urgent,” Hayes said.
The School takes a “holistic view of the built environment,” said Steiner, who is also the Paley Professor. “Truly great places are a result of understanding not just climate but a place’s history, culture, and ecosystem. Great buildings, great landscapes embrace present conditions and anticipate future ones.”
KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia is the project architect. The firm’s founding partners are Weitzman alumni Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, who have also taught at the school.
Now in the schematic design and fundraising phase, project construction is expected to begin in May 2024 and be complete in August 2025. Accommodating the schedule, admissions to the Master of Fine Arts program will be paused in 2023 for one year. Students will continue to use the studio spaces throughout the 2023-24 academic year.
The original building’s interior is being completely redesigned. The new addition on the east side will feature a grand entrance foyer, a glass-walled exhibition gallery that opens to a covered outdoor patio, individual and multi-seat studios, large smart classrooms and critique spaces, and faculty offices. It will also have research hubs for the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites and will house works on paper in the Penn Art Collection.
The design retains historic architectural elements of the original structure, including the façade, the porch, and balcony above the 34th Street entrance. A 3,000-square-foot studio on the third floor will showcase the original beamed ceiling and will open to the balcony.
Completed in 1892, the existing building was designed by the Philadelphia firm Cope & Stewardson. Its red brick echoes the Fisher Fine Arts Library across 34th Street, and the Lerner Center next door, also designed by Cope & Stewardson. Originally an orphanage, the building was acquired by the University in 1899 and named the Randall Morgan Laboratory of Physics, after a member of the Class of 1873 and Penn trustee. The Physics Department was there for more than 50 years. Since then, the building has had several inhabitants come and go, including the School of Nursing. In recent years, it has been home to studio spaces and offices for the Department of Fine Arts.
Weitzman Hall is one of many projects on Penn’s campus bearing his name. In February 2019, the School of Design was renamed in recognition of Weitzman’s philanthropic support of the University and his engagement in academic activities, including teaching scores of students in seminars about design and business. The area between Meyerson Hall and the Fisher Fine Arts buildings has been renovated and is named Stuart Weitzman Plaza. And just last month the University announced that it will build a new theater named for Weitzman adjoining the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
“Penn has been my third child, after my two fabulous daughters,” said Weitzman, who graduated from the Wharton School. “I love giving classes here. I love meeting the students here. They are so smart. They will go on and do more great things for the country, for the world, for Penn. And I’m so proud to be a part of that.”