Preserving Penn Hospital
Pennsylvania Hospital is both a historic treasure and a thriving community. Established in 1751, it’s been in continuous operation at the current site in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood since 1755. Approached from Pine Street, the site is calm and stately, complete with a landscaped garden and a cutting from the original elm tree under which William Penn signed a treaty with the Lenape Turtle Clan. But, around the corner, the scene is bustling, as ambulances and gurneys come and go, and hospital workers in scrubs arrive for their shifts. People come from all over the globe to tour the hospital, one of the earliest to be built in the United States. Yet people who live a few blocks away may have no idea about its legacy, says Stacey Peeples, the hospital’s curator and lead archivist.
“No matter how much you think people know about you, there’s always more education to be had,” Peeples says.
Recently, the hospital commissioned a Conversation Management Plan to help guide planning and upgrades for the Pine Street building, grounds and collections. And it turned to PennPraxis, the consulting and community engagement arm of the Weitzman School, and the School’s Center for Architectural Conservation (CAC) to produce the plan. The work is being led by Frank Matero, professor of architecture and chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and director of the CAC, and project managers Kecia Fong (MSHP‘99), a lecturer in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, and Starr Herr-Cardillo (MSHP‘17), research associates with PennPraxis and the CAC. Together with a group of student interns and faculty consultants, the team is working to produce a Conservation Management Plan that “sets out the significance of [the property], and how that significance will be retained in any future use, management, alteration or repair,” as described in a progress report prepared for the hospital’s leadership last fall.
The document will help protect the layers of historic, educational, medical and scientific value associated with the Hospital, Fong says.
“A site that remains in use for its original purpose is a prime candidate for a Conservation Management Plan, because it is a historic resource and it has these continuous use values,” Herr-Cardillo says.
“The Hospital is both a functioning, mission-driven institution and an important historic site, says Fong. “The CMP negotiates these complex values and imperatives with the ultimate goal of preserving the Hospital’s relevance as derived from its continuity of use; the integrity of its site, (as embodied in its grounds and buildings); and its archival and historic collections.”
The work is proceeding in three phases. Last summer, the Weitzman team combed through archival records to understand how the property has already changed. New buildings were being added as recently as the 1980s, and the landscape has evolved as well. The treaty elm wasn’t added until 1841. And the Physic Garden in the southwest corner of the property was added during the bicentennial in 1976, following through on a plan to establish a botanical garden onsite that was first proposed by a group of doctors in 1774.
Rohan Lewis, a second-year Master of Landscape Architecture student who worked on the project as an intern last summer, developed a series of visualizations showing how the landscape and gardens were laid out during different eras of the hospital’s history. Lewis turned to the hospital’s archives to find old photographs and site drawings, but also spent time learning from the workers who still manage the space.
“It was really fascinating and fun to talk to the people who are managing the grounds at the hospital,” Lewis says. “We got to hear directly from them about their ongoing visions of how the place should look aesthetically and ecologically, and their memories of past conditions and how it might be similar or different to that now.”
History can and should inform design principles, Lewis says. Change, of course, is inevitable. Jeff O’Neill, Pennsylvania Hospital’s senior director of facilities, says he’s currently looking to fit a “COVID Heroes Garden” into one corner of the grounds as a way to honor the work of healthcare workers during the pandemic while respecting the integrity of the existing gardens.
“The landscape is very important to us,” Peeples says. “And as we’ve dug more into this, you see again and again how important having this green space right here has been over the years.”
The Weitzman team is currently conducting stakeholder surveys to learn more about what people value in the property. It is also drawing on the expertise of Aaron Wunsch, associate professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Department of City and Regional Planning, Nicholas Pevzner, an assistant professor of landscape architecture, and Michael Henry, an adjunct professor in the Graduation Program in Historic Preservation, all of whom are serving as consultants. And it is working to develop the recommendations that will make up the Conservation Management Plan.
That document will help guide decisions about future development and landscape changes, and it will also help the hospital fund capital improvements to its historic spaces, Peeples says. One of the realities of being both a working hospital and an architectural artifact is that the operating budget is focused on patient care. So it will be necessary to conduct fundraising specifically to maintain and improve the historic aspects of the building, and find new ways to invite the public to understand the hospital’s legacy. The Conservation Management Plan will be the roadmap for those decisions.
Peeples says that the generations of Hospital stewards who came before her succeeded at keeping the focus on caring for patients while protecting a historic asset for posterity.
“We don’t want to be the people who let something go awry,” she says. “My office is in the section of the Hospital that was built in 1755. And we want to make it possible for people to use this space in 200 years.”
Peeples will be joined by Fong and Herr-Cardillo in a virtual talk about their recent discoveries about the Hospital on Saturday, May 15, as part of Alumni Weekend at Penn. The event is free to all with advance registration.