Space, time, and laboratories: The long history of David Rittenhouse Lab

Penn alums who return to campus often marvel at its transformation. Renovation projects have rejuvenated buildings like Fisher-Bennett Hall, the home of the English department and the Cinema Studies Program and one of the main teaching spaces on campus. The Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics, which opened last year, is a major hub for the social sciences. And the construction of the Carolyn Lynch Laboratory and the Stephen A. Levin Building have advanced the life sciences. Of the 26 buildings that house the people, programs and departments that make up Penn Arts & Sciences, nine are either less than 15 years old or have undergone major renovations in that time.

vintage photo of the facade of the David Rittenhouse Laboratory, two people seated on low wall in front of building.

One place that has remained the same in the midst of all this change is the 65-year-old David Rittenhouse Laboratory (DRL). Since 1954, the Math department, along with Physics and Astronomy, has been housed here, at the southeast corner of 33rd and Walnut Streets. Built in two phases, DRL takes up 243,002 square feet and stretches for a city block. It contains the offices and labs of 86 standing faculty, as well as grad students and post-doctoral fellows, and it provides 20 classrooms used by departments across the School.

While the building itself might resemble a 1950s high school, the departments in it have a history of groundbreaking contributions to their fields. But a building with history is also a building that was not designed for today’s science. DRL is the legacy of an era when government partnered closely with higher education and invested heavily in facilities.

Today, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, foundations, and industry continue to fund individual research studies, and in some cases major scientific equipment. But government support for buildings themselves is now greatly reduced, and universities must find other ways to provide the modern facilities that can attract talented faculty and the graduate students that are the lifeblood of a good science department, to make possible cutting-edge research, and to facilitate excellence in teaching in the sciences.

“Penn had really built nothing since the Depression set in,” says history of art’s David Brownlee, coauthor of “Building America’s First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania.” “The DRL showed a reinvestment in West Philadelphia and an engagement with the new scientific mandates of the late 20th century. And it’s our first building that really looks like a modern building.”

This story is by David Brainard and Susan Ahlborn. Read more at Omnia.