Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics design pairs new with old

An expansive contemporary addition complements and incorporates the adaptive reuse of the circa 1925 Art Deco-style heritage bank building at the corner of 36th and Walnut streets.

South view of the contemporary expansion of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics. Photo copyright Adrien Williams, courtesy of KPMB

The University of Pennsylvania’s new Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics brings together for the first time in one location the School of Arts and Sciences’ departments of Political Science and of Economics. In addition, related academic programs will be located in the new building: the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics (Browne Center), Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC), Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, Penn Institute for Economic Research, and Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies.

Located on the northeast corner of Walnut and 36th streets, the project involved the adaptive reuse and expansion of the circa 1925 Art Deco-style West Philadelphia Title and Trust Company building. The 110,000-square-foot project doubles the capacity of the original bank building. As the first major undergraduate academic development north of Walnut, the design is home to Penn’s newest academic center for teaching and research.  

The exterior of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics is conceived as a composition of elevations that respond to the unique conditions of their orientation and context. The main entrance is on 36th Street, located where the reimagined existing structure and the new meet. The exterior elevation maintains a clear contrast between the heritage building and the contemporary addition. The integrity of the Art Deco façade is respected and restored, while the expansion features an abstract geometric composition of glass and aluminum mullions atop a transparent base along street level. In scale, proportion, and detailing, the design of the addition is inspired by the vertical proportions of the bank building. 

The interior spaces are seamlessly integrated and completely contemporary. A monumental steel and terrazzo stair located in the space between old and new connects the first three levels, including below grade, which together contain the teaching, meeting, and gathering spaces. The central core of the below grade, second, and third levels is clad in oak to add warmth and texture. These floors are distinguished by generously scaled light-filled corridors, throughout which teaching, meeting, and seating nooks are organized.

View of the heritage Art Deco windows from the undergraduate study/lounge on the first level. Photo copyright Adrien Williams, courtesy of KPMB.

KPMB Architects led the design team, bringing their expertise in creating institutional projects integrating heritage architecture set in sensitive urban and campus contexts with sustainable design. The Ronald O. Perelman Center is designed to meet Penn’s LEED Silver target.

“The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics looks good from all directions,” says former University Architect David Hollenberg. “Its deft marriage of new and old not only resonates with the rest of the campus but also is an apt expression of the academic life it contains. With its block-long visibility of student life along 36th Street, it significantly enlivens an important precinct of the University.”     

Shirley Blumberg, partner-in-charge for KPMB Architects, says, “The new Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics extends the vibrancy of campus life into the active urban precinct north of Walnut Street. We designed the new addition to register and complement the historical elegance and vertical proportions of the original limestone building. The transparency of the base connects the heart of the new academic community with the public life, while the upper levels afford dramatic views to the city and campus skylines. This resonant conversation between old and new creates interconnectivity and spaces for collaboration and a vibrant animated ground floor for undergraduate student services.” 

The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics was launched with a leadership gift from alumnus Ronald O. Perelman. An emeritus member of Penn’s Board of Trustees and long-time benefactor to the University, Perelman holds both graduate and undergraduate degrees from Penn’s Wharton School. He is currently chairman and chief executive officer of MacAndrews & Forbes Incorporated.

The building will be officially dedicated at a naming event on Nov. 8.

Major exterior features of the project include:

The contemporary façades of the overall composition are detailed to create geometric, abstract compositions expressing the program within. For example, the glass and steel elevation of the contemporary addition on 36th Street transforms when viewed from different perspectives while expressing the respective public and office programs within.

The public spaces feature wood ceilings and walls that are clearly visible from the exterior, enabling a clear reading of the social structure inherent in the building design.   

The north elevation facing Sansom Street is set back at the third level to relate to the scale of the residential context, creating a third-level outdoor terrace accessed from the graduate lounge.

The east elevation exposes the intersecting program of new and heritage spaces and features a landscaped ramp leading to a second main entrance. It also features a series of stacked conference rooms from levels four to six, their volumes distinguished by wood-slat ceilings visible from the exterior.

The integrity of the heritage façade on Walnut Street is completely retained. The entrance vestibule is restored and distinguished by the incorporation of two facing stone-carved lion heads that were removed from the Walnut Street elevation to accommodate new building signage. 

View of the atrium stair, reception, and undergraduate study/lounge area looking south from the lobby. Photo copyright Adrien Williams, courtesy of KPMB.

Unique interior features of the project include:

The western portion of the Art Deco double-height banking hall is updated and repurposed as a two-story lounge with seating organized to the rhythm of the eight large vertical windows, distinguished by cast iron ornamental frames.

The Auditorium/Lecture Hall, located below grade, features indigo blue-stained wood slat walls to reinforce the Penn identity and seats 120.

On the second level, the Forum, a multi-purpose space with capacity for 72 people, overlooks the double-height atrium/lounge and the tops of the Art Deco windows.

The top three levels contain graduate and faculty offices, organized according to a rigorous spatial module to optimize efficiency. Strategic applications of translucent and transparent glass windows and walls achieve a light-filled, connected environment to inspire teamwork and the sharing of ideas and insights.

Operable windows are provided throughout.

The 50-percent-glazed exterior is enhanced with metal and solar shading.

Indigo blue, an accent color woven throughout the scheme, is inspired by Penn’s signature blue and occurs in a range of intensities, from soft blue-grey tones in the terrazzo floors, denim tones in the stained wood walls of the Auditorium, and vivid indigo along key corridors in the upper levels.

    • 1

      Auditorium for 120 people

    • 1

      Forum for 72 people

    • 6

      Classrooms for the School of Arts and Sciences

    • 6

      Study rooms and centers

    • 1

      Faculty lounge and outdoor terrace

    • 2

      Graduate student lounges

    • 13

      Meeting rooms

    • 19

      Graduate student offices

    • 85

      Faculty offices

North view from Walnut and 36th streets. Exterior elevation showing respected and restored Art Deco façade and the glass and aluminum mullions of the contemporary addition in the distance. Photo copyright Adrien Williams, courtesy of KPMB.

Sustainability measures:

  • LEED Silver certification target
  • Public transportation access
  • 20 percent water use reduction
  • Water efficient landscaping including the use of native or adapted vegetation
  • Optimizes energy performance for heating and cooling, energy recovery, and participation in the University of Pennsylvania’s green power system
  • Storage and collection of recyclables throughout the building
  • Meet indoor thermal comfort requirements
  • Operable windows in all offices
  • Heat island reduction through the use of reflective roofing