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Inside Penn’s $80M renovation of Eero Saarinen’s Hill College House

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The midcentury modern dorm reopens after a 15-month renovation

The recently renovated Hill College House at Penn was originally built in 1960 and designed by Eero Saarinen.
Photos © Aislinn Weidele / Mills + Schnoering Architects

The University of Pennsylvania’s Hill College House, the only Philadelphia-based project of noted Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, is ready for its close-up—again.

Hill College House was designed in 1958 by Saarinen, who at that point had already designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. When it was built in 1960, it was the university’s first women’s-only dorm, which made for some interesting architectural choices by Saarinen that remain iconic to this day.

“He designed a brick, dark, and forbidding exterior with an immediate contrast once you step inside,” said project manager Alison Baxter, of Mills + Schnoering Architects (M+Sa).

As an effort to keep the students safe, Saarinen surrounded the building with a dry moat and designed a drawbridge to the entrance. The roof was lined with curved spikes, and landscape architect Dan Kiley planted a variety of honey locust trees that have thorns.

The drawbridge entrance and moat, designed by Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley, were restored. OLIN was project’s the lead landscape architect.

As a result of its foreboding exterior, one might assume that the interiors are just as drab. But the Hill College House was one of Penn’s first dormitories to take on the “college house” plan, which emphasizes small living spaces, but big community areas that encourage student collaboration and a social atmosphere.

This is is immediately apparent once behind the front doors, when Saarinen’s dramatic atrium comes into full view. “It’s a self-protected village with a piazza space,” explained Baxter.

Although the interiors may look untouched, M+Sa made plenty of changes to the space, from replacing the original window shutters that close off the lounge areas to installing LED bulbs into the theater lights that line the ceiling (the building is aiming for LEED Gold certification). Colorful midcentury modern furniture—many of which use the same fabric swatches that Saarinen originally chose—were also added to the space to promote more student engagement.

Top photos by Melissa Romero

Top right: Simple fixes like adding furniture to the atrium encourage the dormitory’s sense of community. Bottom: More than 400 windows throughout the Hill College House were refurbished.

Other deft fixes were incorporated to help accommodate the at times disorienting floor plan. MS+A painted the student dorm doors, staircases, hallways in bold colors—simplified versions of Saarinen’s color palette.

In addition to refurbishing more than 400 windows, perhaps one of the biggest improvements to the building is the expansion of the dining facilities on the bottom level by 50 percent.

But for the 500 freshmen who will move into their renovated college house later this month, the most-welcomed improvement to the building will be cooler dorms. Said Anne Papageorge, Penn’s Vice President for Facilities and Real Estate Services, “They’ll be happy to know that the building is now fully-equipped with AC.”

Photo by Melissa Romero