In November of 1960, Penn women students and staff moved their belongings into the newly completed “Women’s Residence” at 33rd and Walnut streets. Designed by famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, the dorm—now known as Hill College House—was both acclaimed and panned upon its construction. Made of hand-molded red brick and black steel, and surrounded by a high fence, some called the building “severe,” according to a story in the February 1961 Pennsylvania Gazette. But others praised Saarinen’s interior design, which included a bright, glass-enclosed, five-story central court reminiscent of a village square.
At a press conference in December of 1960 about the dorm, Saarinen admitted it is a “forbidding building,” but that intent was purposeful. “I think what that does is to emphasize the inside—the richness of the inside by the very severity of the outside,” he said. “We made [windows] purposely small because the view out of them is nothing to get terribly happy about; so the more we closed the outside, the more we opened the inside. We tried to create a balance inwards.”
Hill College House (pictured in this 1961 photograph) was named in 1966 after 1889 College graduate Robert C. Hill, who made a bequest that enabled Penn to purchase the land on which the dorm stands. Today, the dorm is undergoing a full renovation, including improvements to student rooms, bathrooms, common areas, central dining, and kitchen facilities. Upon completion in July, there will also be new furniture, restored windows, a new roof, air conditioning, and other upgrades.
“The renovation of Hill House in unison with the completion [last] fall of New College House gives a nod to the original master plan made in 1960, which called for two buildings, college residences, on the block,” says University Architect David Hollenberg. “Both New College House and Hill House share Saarinen’s vision for communal living, with multiple public spaces at various scales and small, more private bedroom spaces.”
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives website.