The 200 or so students in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology didn’t just need a workspace, they needed a home.
And with the newly renovated Robbins House, they got one.
“I’m so happy to be here when we ceremoniously open the doors to the new home of the M&T Program, because as we all know—and some of the people who went to Penn with me here today know—Penn opened so many doors for us,” said Larry Robbins, a 1992 M&T alumnus and lead donor for the $9.8 million renovation project, at a dedication ceremony for the building on April 17.
The 7,120-square-foot building, at 3537 Locust Walk, was originally constructed in the late 19th century as a home. Its subsequent transformation in the late 1920s for use by a fraternity was enlivened by adding its current Tudor-style façade. The building functionally has served as a meeting ground for students from M&T and other departments in recent years. It was selected for renovations in 2014 as an M&T-specific workspace, and construction began in May 2016. Doors reopened in August 2017. New York-based architecture firm Studio Joseph, led by Penn alumna Wendy Joseph, designed the new building, which has been expanded to approximately 8,000 square feet.
President Amy Gutmann said at the dedication ceremony that the building celebrates a program that was interdisciplinary—collaborative—long before it was “the vogue,” and is one that continues to attract and cultivate great talent.
“This is an incredibly intellectually vibrant environment that draws—let’s make no bones about it—the best and brightest from around the world,” Gutmann said. “It encourages incredible expertise, and our students are incredibly hardworking, and [the program] rewards innovative thinking. To put it simply, it fosters greatness.”
Among the building’s interior changes: a new conference room facing Locust Walk, work lounges on the first and second floors, a first-floor reception area, several offices, and private third-floor rooms that buffet a large space that alternates as workspace and event space.
The exterior’s most recognizable transformations, meanwhile, include the curtain wall installed on the north façade of the building that creates a contemporary protrusion aesthetic, and an expanse of panel windows along its rear. This contemporary north façade is a contrast to the restored south façade along Locust Walk, with an entrance that is designed to be transparent—onlookers can see through each end of the building, from the glass entranceway through the back windows. An estimated one-third of the original building was preserved.
University Architect David Hollenberg, who describes the Office of the University Architect within Facilities and Real Estate Services, as well as the University’s Design Review Committee, as serving as the “design conscience” for Penn’s building projects, emphasized that a major effort was, from the beginning, made to preserve as much of the building as possible—even as design hurdles along the way required more to be taken out than originally intended. Much of the building’s 1920s exterior facade was maintained, including its limestone on the south and west walls, all of which was retained and cleaned. On the interiors at the southern end of the project, surviving features such as ornamental window paneling and the shell of a fireplace and chimney were conserved.
“There’s a pejorative term out there in the field called a ‘facadectomy,’ a treatment in which literally all you keep is the façade, and we don’t like to do those at Penn, especially at this prominent location,” Hollenberg says of the preservation effort. “All of us felt it was important for the historic part of the building to turn the corner and keep not just the south façade, but portions of the façade that made their way from Locust Walk into the entrance, and that’s what you see out there with the ornamental brick and limestone that defines the pathway to the entrance.”
Joseph notably integrated a “scissor stair,” more typically used for egress in high-rise construction, to allow the building’s narrow space to breathe. Rooms are designed to bring in outdoor light—going as far as to add corner windows on the second and third floors, in addition to skylights on the third—and become increasingly more intimate from floor to floor. The transparency of the building, three-dimensional design principles, and natural light are meant to enhance the collaborative nature of the space’s use.
“It’s cramming a lot of ideas into a very small space,” Hollenberg says. “There’s a lot of architectural thought going on here, so as to not make it look overworked and fussy. It’s very clean and there’s a lot of care with every square foot that Wendy [Joseph] exercised to make it look as simple and clean as possible.
“Simple is hard.”
The name of the building was also very intentional—looking specifically at the back half of the name.
“The notion of recalling Penn’s residential history, a lot of the buildings that line Locust Walk, it’s the notion that instead of it being ‘The Larry Robbins Hall,’ or ‘Center,’ there’s something more welcoming about the word ‘House’ that goes with the diminutive character of the building,” Hollenberg says. “The same logic is what led to calling Perry World House what it is—there’s almost an explicit intent to recall those two historic renovations with frankly contemporary pieces at each end of Locust Walk, that speak to each other through their names.”
Gad Allon, director of the M&T program, notes the symbolism of the building being halfway between Wharton and the Penn Engineering schools, offering a home base to students between classes. Since it opened in August, he says, students have often used it to do homework, socialize, and take advantage of the building’s newly incorporated audio-visual technology—screens, discussion boards, plus cameras, speakers, and microphones for Skype, etc.—to host meetings.
It is, he says, similar to a co-working space.
“It’s not very different from what WeWork would look like; it operates like a co-working space,” Allon says. “There’s a coffee space downstairs, snacks, it’s very much trying to capture a startup mentality. A place where people can come work [together].”