The best kind of architecture uses what’s on the outside to tell us something about what’s going on inside. The facade functions as a text, replete with metaphors and allusions, that can be read like a book. A big reason this column exists is to help decipher what our buildings are trying to say.
Thomas Jefferson University’s Scott Memorial Library at 10th and Walnut Streets is one of those buildings bursting with information about its purpose and its place in the city. Because the architects envisioned it as a secure repository for everything we know about the human body, they gave it the form of a medieval fortress. But the free-standing medical library also can be seen as a version of the human body, with the architectural equivalent of a head, trunk, and legs. Its overtly classical references connect the building to the Renaissance and the beginnings of modern medical science.
Because it can take time to absorb those layers of meaning, it’s easy to write off the Scott library as a one-note design, a bulky, imposing, castle-wannabe. For many years, I saw the building as an anti-urban indulgence that used its arcade to wall itself off from its surroundings. But I’ve come to like its dark, mysterious presence, unapologetic in its solidity. The seven-story brick structure doesn’t just have muscles; it’s ripped. Brawny arches ring the ground floor, like an honor guard protecting the treasure inside.
You definitely wouldn’t want arcades like this used on every building — unless, of course, climate change turns Philadelphia into a steaming tropical city. Here, though, the massive arches create plays of light and shadow, giving the views through Jefferson’s campus a romantic charm. The brick arches are balanced at the roofline by a crenellated battlement that pulses out from the top of the building. You can almost imagine archers armed with bows and boiling oil taking positions in the narrow window openings.
The Jefferson castle was designed in the late ‘60s by Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson, a storied Philadelphia firm that later compressed its name to H2L2. The lead designers for the library were two very different characters: Roy Larson, an ally of Edmund Bacon, the powerful city planner, and A. William Hajjar, a former Penn State professor whose taste for flamboyant architectural forms earned him the nickname “Wild Bill.” It opened in 1970.
What prompted the architects to insert this brooding citadel in the middle of Center City’s business district? It’s true that the castle has been an enduring motif in architecture, admired for its strength and simplicity. You can find many variations around Philadelphia, from literal interpretations, like the 23rd Street Armory, to the more abstracted granary at 20th and Callowhill Streets.
But the late ‘60s were also the heyday of Brutalism, when architects were reacting against the lightweight glass buildings of the International Style. In place of the refined corporate look that Modernists had cultivated, dissident architects turned to poured-in-place concrete. The rougher the surface, the better. By using the stonelike material, they hoped to create buildings that were the opposite of slick office towers, and as monumental and enduring as ancient temples.
The Scott library has that monumental quality in spades, but not the concrete. It’s unlikely that Larson and Hajjar ever seriously considered anything that crude for the university’s medical school. Their initial plan, according to former H2L2 principal Barry Eiswerth, who joined the firm in 1965 as an intern, was to use a yellowish brick, to match the two Jefferson buildings across the street, College Hall and the Curtis Clinic.
A quick glance at that pair of art deco towers quickly reveals where Hajjar — the design brains, according to Eiswerth — got his inspiration for the Scott library. That pair, designed by Horace Trumbauer in 1929, features a long series of tall, arched windows. The ropes of carved stone that frame the entrance take their cues from the medieval architecture of the Lombard region of northern Italy. There are also echoes of the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.
Hajjar uses those arches and medieval details as the jumping-off point for his design but adapts them for his own purposes. He stretches and flattens Trumbauer’s tall arches to fit his boxier fortress. Yes, it’s a medieval castle, but with a modernist sensibility. Even though the energy crisis was still a few years off, the windows appear as stingy slits in the otherwise solid facade. Interestingly, you can find the similarly narrow arched windows at Penn’s Van Pelt Library, a more conventionally modernist building designed by Larson in the early ‘60s.
While the Scott library may have started as a contextual response to Trumbauer’s College Hall, Eiswerth told me that Larson and Hajjar were unhappy with the yellow brick. Perhaps they saw it as too dainty and lighthearted for such a tough building. Eventually, traditional red won out. The color is still contextual, but with the wider city.
While Hajjar may have chosen the castle form to communicate that the library’s holdings were safe behind its thick walls, the design signifies more than security. The classical form allowed Hajjar to give the library a traditional, tripartite arrangement: base, middle, and crown. The proportions roughly correlate to the human body, further connecting the design to its function as a medical library. Incidentally, the crenellated top floors were originally intended to house the university’s administrative offices — the brains of the operation.
To really appreciate Hajjar’s design skill, take note of the fins that mark each of the library’s rounded corners. Not only do they ground the battlement in the earth, they balance out the composition. It’s rare to see a free-standing building in Center City, and only something with this level of heft and gravitas can get away with it.
The opening of the library was a proud moment for Jefferson. Up until 1970, its medical library was housed in the basement of Trumbauer’s College Hall, and many felt a school of Jefferson’s size deserved a bigger and more prominent place for study. The new building gave the Scott library — which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year — the visibility and space it deserves. While the exterior looks much as it did in 1970, the interior has evolved over the years to adapt to the library’s changing needs. Today, most of the original book stacks are gone, replaced by casual seating areas, study pods, and glass-fronted rooms for group study sessions.
Hajjar may have taken the lead on the design, but Larson’s involvement goes beyond the slit windows. As part of the commission for the library, he developed a campus master plan that envisioned a series of arcades threaded through the block, ultimately leading to Vincent Kling’s alumni hall on Locust Street. While Larson’s plan was never realized, Andropogon, a landscape architecture firm, designed an oval plaza on Locust Street that now serves as a forecourt for the library.
The space has effectively transformed the Scott library into the entrance to Jefferson’s increasingly lively campus. That surely wasn’t what Larson and Hajjar were thinking when they modeled their building on an ancient fortress. But one of the marks of a strong design is its ability to adapt to changing conditions.