In the competitive world of academia, colleges are always looking for ways to burnish their image. Drexel University is trying to do it one orange brick at a time.
Still smarting from the days when it was tagged the "ugliest campus" in America in a college-ranking survey, the West Philadelphia institution has begun a massive effort to colorize its oft-derided orange-brick buildings, transforming them from garish tangerine to tasteful collegiate red. It is accomplishing this by equipping workers with miniature paint rollers and dispatching them to coat each offending orange brick, one by one.
So far, the improvement brigade has faux-painted the lower portions of the General Services parking building along the 34th and Ludlow Streets sides. Once scaffolding arrives, the crew will move up the facade. The work is time-consuming, explained painter Rick Farina, because they are striving to stay within the lines, to avoid staining the grout.
After the garage is finished, there are six more buildings to change to red.
Robert Francis, vice president for facilities, described the project as part of a strategy to upgrade the eclectic urban campus, which has risen from a modest commuter school to one of the nation's top 100 universities.
It's the "de-orange-ifcation of Drexel," Francis said.
He said he did not know the cost of the colorization, which was still in the testing stage, but suggested it would be significantly cheaper than re-skinning the facades - that is, replacing the brick with a new material, such as glass. Just two university workers have been assigned to the painting detail, although more may be drafted.
Of course, the transformation could be accomplished much faster if the university simply spray-painted the facades. But that would sacrifice the grout lines. Drexel's aim is to make its campus appear more like a traditional redbrick university.
Drexel's main corridors are notable for the large collection of blandly institutional orange-brick buildings, including Nesbitt Hall, the Mandell theater, and the recreation center. Most date from the less-than-glorious architectural period of the '60s and '70s when the state Department of General Services funded and managed Drexel's construction. Orange brick was cheaper than red.
It was never easy being orange, though.
Given Drexel's proximity to the University of Pennsylvania's ivy-covered, redbrick campus, the carroty color scheme left many with a deep sense of inferiority.
"You were immediately able to tell when you left the Penn campus," said Francis. "It was cheap and tawdry, a symbol of the old Drexel."
After Constantine Papadakis became president in 1995, he moved Drexel away from the state-college look. The university has spent millions on dorms, science labs, classrooms, and recreational facilities. Several new structures, like the gym and Chestnut Square dorms, were designed to envelop orange-brick buildings, camouflaging their facades.
It happens that Drexel's current president, John Fry, came from Penn, where he helped improve that campus by opening up several fortresslike buildings to make the school a more welcoming place. Fry has brought many of the same practices to Drexel.
While "structurally fine," Drexel's orange buildings have "an old, tired look," said Fry, who originally worked in real estate. "Honestly, I would have preferred to re-skin them, but we didn't have the resources."
Drexel's orange-brick buildings are, in a certain way, the Philadelphia equivalent of Manhattan's white-brick apartment houses. Those buildings were also loathed for many decades. But recently, some New Yorkers have begun to develop an affection for their plainspoken functionality.
"I don't think anyone is going to feel nostalgia" for the orange-brick buildings at Drexel, said Fry, who once lived in a white-brick building in Manhattan.
The feedback for the colorization has so far been positive, Farina said. "One guy stopped me and asked if I would do his fireplace."
The worst thing about Drexel's tangerine-hued buildings probably isn't their color. Like many government-built structures of their time, they present a hostile face to the street and lack a certain human grace. Coloring them red won't change that.