In 1970, University of Pennsylvania’s new president Martin Meyerson hired arguably the most famous architect in America at the time, Penn’s own Louis Kahn, to renovate a double-wide brownstone mansion at 2016 Spruce Street into a new presidential residence. Meyerson was a unusual university president, in that his background was not in academia, but in city planning. Accordiing to the New York Times: “He oversaw the conversion of what had been a collection of buildings on Philadelphia streets into a true campus. Streets were closed, landscaped walkways were built, and a large park was created in the middle of the campus.”
Traditionally, the Penn president lived in leafy Chestnut Hill, the favorite enclave of Philadelphia’s upper crust and the neigborhood of many of the university’s biggest donors. A native New Yorker, Meyerson decided to change that precendent by moving the president’s home into Center City. 2016 Spruce had been built in the 1860s by the prominent architect Samuel Sloan. Sloan’s most notable surviving commissions include the Woodland Terrace development (longtime neighborhood of Penn architecture professor Paul-Philippe Cret) and the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at 50thand Market. Sloan’s specialized in the picturesque Italianate style. By the early 1970s, Philadelphia’s real estate market was in a deep funk. Rittenhouse Square had fallen a long way since its Gilded Age heyday, when the author Henry James described it as “the perfect square.” Yet the once-fashionable streets around Rittenhouse still remained popular with Penn faculty, including physician Dr. Isidor Ravdin, city planner Edmund Bacon, and sociologist E. Digby Baltzell Jr.
The student protests and strikes of the late 60s also may have had something to do with Meyerson’s decision to not live on the West Philadelphia campus. In 1972, Harvard’s president Derek Bok (an heir to the Philadelphia-based Curtis publishing fortune) decamped from Harvard Yard to the 18th century Elmwood mansion, still in Cambridge but a comfortable mile or so from campus.
Louis Kahn, who balanced private practice and teaching duties, was busy with prestigious commissions in the late 60s, most notably the National Assembly at Dhaka in Bangladesh. Yet Kahn must have felt sense of obligation to his former boss at Penn’s architecture school to undertake this relatively small project. Trained in the traditional Beaux Arts method, Kahn was extremely respectful of the mansion’s Victorian aesthetic. Unlike other modernist architects, who would gutted the house, Kahn used a light touch, keeping all of the intricate paneling, marble fireplaces, and ornamental plaster intact. He added bookshelves in one of the double parlors to house Meyerson’s library, and then created a new kitchen addition at the rear of the house. The kitchen, despite its modest size, is pure Kahn, with plenty of light and large, unornamented surfaces of wood and brick.
The end result was a house that retained its “Old Philadelphia” Victorian gravitas, but was well-suited to the modern urban family life of Martin and Margi Meyerson.
In 1980, with the memories of campus unrest fading, the University of Pennsylvania decided to move the president’s residence back to West Philadelphia. The building chosen for the honor was the former mansion of the cigar manufacturer Otto Eisenlohr, located at 3808-3810 Walnut Street. Built in 1907, it was the work of Horace Trumbauer and his partner Julian Abele, the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture program.
2016 Spruce Street is once again a private residence, and has recently been listed for sale at nearly $3 million.
Judith Rodin, The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), p.25.
Sandy Smith, “A President’s House in Rittenhouse for $2.895M,” Philadelphia Magazine, April 30, 2018.
Dennis Hevesi, “Martin Meyerson, 84, Leader at 3 Universities, Dies,” The New York Times, June 7, 2007.