After a nearly two-year restoration, the Arts, Research, and Culture House (ARCH) is back at the heart of campus―and it’s better than ever.ARCH at Penn

The $26 million project, made possible by a $15 million gift from an anonymous donor along with additional donor support, brought much-needed updates to the historic building located at 36th and Locust Walk, making it possible for this center for student life to better serve the University and its students.  

“The heart of Penn is back, stronger than ever before in Penn’s history,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann at the building’s grand reopening, held February 6. “Think of this as the pulsebeat of this campus come to life.”

Characterized as a historic restoration, the project increased the building’s visibility, accessibility, and usability by the entire campus, but made great efforts to transform the building with dignity and respect for its history, staying true to the original plan and footprint of the building and restoring as much of the original material as possible.

The upgrades to the building, which is registered to pursue LEED-silver certification, are numerous.

The project was designed to not only make the building more comfortable, but also technologically state of the art. Those updates include enhancement, replacement, or installation of the electrical system, heating and air-conditioning, audiovisual, Internet, and wireless capabilities, and more. In fact, one room off the main floor lounge is intensively wired, with video- and teleconferencing capabilities, among others.

"Occupant comfort is a very important component of the success of a building that’s intended to serve as a social center," said University Architect David Hollenberg. "This is going to improve student life; it is invisibly but thoroughly wired for every kind of anticipatable AV and Internet capacity.”

Accessibility was a key consideration in the ARCH’s redesign. All four floors of the building are now handicapped-accessible, punctuated by a beautiful entrance on Locust Walk and a newly added elevator. Additionally, a code-compliant access and egress to and from the building in case of emergency is now in place with the placement of a fire stair, one of the few additions to the building's exterior.

The use of space has also been upgraded. In addition to recapturing some of the main floor’s original floor plan, in which all the public spaces float into one another, the building includes flexible meeting rooms and space of varying sizes that are available to faculty and students for meetings, classes, seminars, and special events. The building also includes an auditorium space with flexible seating options that can be changed quickly and easily to accommodate many potential uses, such as classes and active-learning classrooms, dance practice, banquets, and performances, as well as a dance studio with a sprung floor and mirrored wall.

Important assets for students on campus, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) and three cultural centers―The Center for Hispanic Excellence: La Casa Latina, Makuu: The Black Cultural Center, and the Pan-Asian American Community House (PAACH)―have been reintroduced into upgraded spaces. CURF’s main offices, located outside of the auditorium, also have increased visibility, and the cultural centers, located on the ground floor of the building, now feature a new entrance and very prominent exterior stair, meaning students can access the space directly from outside or by entering through the main entrance and going down the interior steps. The ground floor experienced the most intervention of the project, and now features a common space open to all students with a banquette, tables, wireless access, and natural light.

“The heart of Penn is back, stronger than ever before in Penn’s history."
―Penn President Amy Gutmann

Additionally, what was once a classroom along Locust Walk has been transformed into Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera. The famed Chicago chef’s first East Coast café is coupled with a grab-and-go option, ARCH Express, which offers a variety of rotating world fusion cuisines. Seating is available in this space as well as throughout the main floor and on a restored terrace along Locust Walk.

The building also boasts upgraded restroom facilities, including a gender-neutral bathroom on the ground floor as well as new bathrooms situated in an addition on the west side of the building. Additional structural upgrades accommodate some of the building’s new mechanical systems.  

Built in the late 1920s as the Christian Association, the building originally served as a social center for white Christian males.

Much of the building’s historical fabric remains intact or fully restored. The building’s four terracotta chimneys have been cleaned, making a spectacular addition to the Penn skyline. The slate roof, which was nearing the end of its useful life, was replaced with new slate roofing, and the limestone ornament of the building has all been restored. The terrazzo floor, windows, and woodwork were either restored to original glory using skills revived from previous generations, or were replaced to match nearly exactly; determining which pieces were restored and which pieces were replaced throughout the building is nearly impossible.

“One of the building’s key assets is its location,” said Hollenberg. “It’s literally the crossroads of campus. No one who is a part of this campus can avoid that corner.”

Now fully equipped to fulfill its purpose as a social hub for the entire campus community, its central location has never seemed better for this landmark building that truly serves as the heart of Penn.