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Changing Skyline | A feat of magic at Bryn Mawr

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, June 1, 2007, 2:28 AM

Dalton Hall's peaked roofline is now visible from inside a renovated corridor between two laboratories.

As the Harry Potter generation of high school juniors embarks on the ritual grand tour of American colleges, many will be looking for schools that look a lot like Bryn Mawr College. With its moody Gothic towers and gabled attics, the Lower Merion institution is a ringer for the book's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. You almost expect to encounter a game of Quidditch on the verdant campus green.

Dalton Hall's peaked roofline is now visible from inside a renovated corridor between two laboratories.
Metal braces held the walls in place as Dalton Hall's interior was prepared for entirely new beams, columns, floors and ceilings. BARRY HALKIN / MGA Partners
For the frames in the entrance pavilion, thin steel ribs mimicthe narrow limestone divisions typical of Gothic windows.
Photo Gallery: Changing Skyline | A feat of magic at Bryn Mawr

Bryn Mawr has always been proud of its historic Collegiate Gothic buildings, but now the school sees its 19th-century architecture as a killer recruitment tool for the cohort raised on tales of wizards and muggles. At the same time, being the steward of such a picturesque Gothic ensemble is fraught with plot twists beyond J.K. Rowling's imaginings. How, for instance, do you add a modern building - one devoted to real science - to such an evocative landscape?

Short of developing an invisibility cloak, the next best solution may be to insert a new structure behind the venerable Gothic walls of an existing one.

Philadelphia's MGA Partners used that trick to conjure a new classroom building inside Dalton Hall that is bigger, brighter and more functional than the one that existed there previously. With muggle-made metal braces holding the walls in place, the firm replaced the interior board by board with a new set of beams, columns, floors and ceilings.

Like the great wizards in the Harry Potter stories, the architects, led by MGA's Daniel Kelley, have left their mark as evidence of the 21st-century intervention. Over the building's main face (dare we call it the forehead?), Kelley has fashioned an assertively modern entrance pavilion that reinterprets the Gothic for our times in glass, steel and concrete.

The college initially felt some trepidation about allowing this contemporary incursion into a campus dominated by Wissahickon schist and limestone. It feared that more modern structures on campus - even one with Gothic details - might dilute the brand.

But it's clear at a glance that not only does Kelley's glass entry hall respect Bryn Mawr's architectural traditions, its strong sculptural shape actually enlivens Dalton's flat, lifeless facade.

In certain light, the pavilion disappears into Dalton's dark gray stone, a trick that Harry Potter himself would have had trouble mastering. The entrance feels as effervescent as a soap bubble.

Maybe because Dalton was the first science lab built at a women's college, its 1892 design by C.F. Osborne is more plain than Bryn Mawr's other Gothic buildings. Had its walls been constructed from a material less loved than schist, it's unlikely that the college would have worked so hard to preserve them - or invested $15 million in the project. But Bryn Mawr's social science departments, which occupy the building, now have the best of all worlds: wired classrooms, spacious offices, and a beckoning new entrance.

Kelley's pavilion works so well because it refreshes the Gothic for an age besotted with lavish displays of plate glass and high-tech steel. When you recall that the 19th-century Gothic Revival style was itself a proud assertion of modernity and came into being along with the development of structural steel, the frank use of these industrial materials at Dalton is really a continuation of tradition. One lesson you can take from Kelley's fusion is that the modern style, like the pursuit of science, isn't something to be feared.

Kelley approached the aesthetics of the project much like a sculptor working with an imaginary glass block. He started by shaving off the corners at varying angles, forming triangular projections that act as the inverse of Dalton's peaked roof gables.

For the metal frame holding the glass curtain wall in place, Kelley chose the Schuco system from Germany because it offers the thinnest of metal ribs, which mimic the narrow limestone divisions typical of Gothic windows. The steel was painted a delicate cornflower purple so it picks up the gray tones of the Wissahickon schist.

Finally, by placing the seven-sided pavilion on Dalton's central axis, overlooking a lawn, Kelley gives the building the Gothic tower and grand staircase it never had. At night, the glass shaft becomes a glowing, come-hither beacon that signals Dalton's transformation to the rest of the campus. Like a good Gothic building, the design has a clear practical purpose: It allows in so much light that Kelley was able to carve out additional classroom space in the basement.

In the 1980s, when postmodernism was in vogue, architects might have similarly tried to show their respect for the Gothic by imitation or caricature. Nowadays, we're embarrassed by such yuk-yuk jokiness, which too often appears indistinguishable from commercial schlock. Because Kelley's approach is based on painstaking architectural craftsmanship - like the Gothic itself - it has a better chance of standing the test of time.

Kelley, who was recently honored as a fellow by the American Institute of Architects, has pursued that same level of craft in other projects. Philadelphians will recognize precursors of the Dalton pavilion in the glass-enclosed entrances to the University of Pennsylvania's facilities building and the Annenberg School, both on Walnut Street.

Those appendages are less sculptural and more boxy than Dalton Hall, but then they're not affixed to a Gothic building. They're right for their context. Such sure composition comes not with the sleight-of-hand of a magician's wand, but with the old-fashioned, laborious application of architectural craft.

Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/skyline.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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