Changing Skyline: Temple grows up

Each pair of floors in the tower, constituting a "college house" of 60 students, has a two-story, glass-enclosed lounge.
Each pair of floors in the tower, constituting a "college house" of 60 students, has a two-story, glass-enclosed lounge. (MGA Partners Architects)
Posted: August 31, 2013

How will students living in Temple University's deluxe new Morgan Hall dorm ever be able to concentrate?

Its 27-story tower is now the tallest building north of City Hall and, even from a middle floor, Philadelphia's downtown skyline looks as if it had been laid out on a platter. Students can pan all the way from the Delaware River to Fairmount Park and peek into Montgomery County. Should they tire of gazing outside, every suite is equipped with a 42-inch flat-screen TV.

Temple poured $216 million into the massive complex at Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, where three shimmering, brick-and-metal towers orbit around a landscaped plaza and outdoor dining terrace. Designed by MGA Partners and Olin, firms that generally work for the Ivy Leagues, Morgan Hall packs in the sort of amenities that Center City apartment dwellers might envy, from fireplaces in the lobbies to full kitchens and sleek Herman Miller furniture in the rooms.

With the opening of Morgan Hall last week, Temple joins schools across the country in the race to upscale their dorms and lure more top students. Colleges have been feathering these lavish nests to appeal to a generation that grew up with their own bedrooms and recoil at the thought of trekking down the hall to shower. Compared with places that equip their residences with swimming pools and tanning salons, Morgan Hall might be considered restrained.

Then again, Temple's goal with Morgan Hall wasn't just to build another fancy dorm. The block-sized complex, which will add significantly to the university's stock of on-campus housing, is really about bringing coherence to Temple's cluttered campus. While the design doesn't get a perfect grade in campus-building, Morgan Hall still is Temple's first grown-up work of architecture since it began transforming itself into a major university in the 1990s.

Surrounded by a sea of short buildings, Morgan Hall is a shining, high-visibility declaration that Temple has left behind its commuter-school past. The complex will provide housing for 1,275 students, about a quarter of the population now living on campus. Its roomy, four-person suites won't be enough to pull the rest of Temple's undergraduates out of rented rowhouses in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, but it is a big step in that direction.

Morgan Hall is best understood as a reaction to everything Temple had done wrong over the last two decades. Nearly all its new construction - both residential and academic - had been plopped down haphazardly, with almost no long-term vision.

The result is a collection of buildings lacking in basic social skills. Grand front doors open out onto loading docks of their neighbors. Powerful corner locations are neutralized by blank walls. Temple has nearly wrecked its part of North Broad Street, which should be a vital Main Street for the sake of both the university and the city.

Temple began coming to terms with these problems two years ago after it commissioned MGA and Olin to develop a campus master plan. Hiring a university architect - Margaret Carney - was the first recommendation. Building a major dorm was the second. The site was chosen as a way of extending the campus south, so Temple can tap into the energy of Center City, much as Penn and Drexel have done.

The architects saw Morgan Hall as an opportunity to soften Temple's hard-edged urban campus with a gracious plaza where all students could hang out. By putting a signature project next to the Cecil B. Moore subway stop, at what is effectively the campus' front door, the university hoped to set a new tone for Temple's treatment of Broad Street.

Morgan Hall, which is named for 1980 alumnus and apartment mogul Mitch Morgan and his wife Hilarie, consists of four discrete buildings. Besides the 300-foot main tower at the north corner of the block, two 10-story slabs frame its east and south sides. A two-story, glass-fronted dining hall along Broad Street completes the block and encloses an elevated plaza on the second level.

Such a huge residence could be an overwhelming place for students. To foster a sense of intimacy, MGA's Daniel Kelley organized the building around groups of 60 students, called "college houses" and made up of suites with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room and kitchen. Every pair of floors is served by a spectacular two-story glass lounge and other services, like a laundry room.

A committed modernist, Kelley designed the skin with great care to reflect what's going on inside. The towers rise from a base of glazed black brick that roots the buildings in the city; above, the facade shifts to an intricate weave of pearly white and gray metal panels - a "scotch plaid," Kelley says. The plaid's squares form the "bay windows" of the living rooms. Narrow windows signal bedrooms. There's not a bit of Temple red in the house.

Kelley does less well with the campus-building part of the assignment, mainly because Morgan Hall fails to restore the primacy of Broad Street. Despite the presence of the dining hall's long glass wall, no doors face the street. Meanwhile, the north corner, all black brick, is similarly mute, although there are plans for a high-end restaurant with outdoor tables on the Cecil B. Moore side. It's still a long walk south to the next block, where pedestrians are greeted by Fresh Grocer's blank wall.

Because Morgan Hall is meant to serve all Temple students, Kelley positioned the complex's main point of entry on Cecil B. Moore, across from Liacouras Walk. Students flow up a generous ramp to the terrace plaza, where they can access the dining room and all three residences. Dressed up with heavy beams of granite and some by-the-numbers planting beds, the terrace, by Olin, falls just short of being too corporate. Students, being students, should fix that.

At the southern end of the plaza, a grand staircase leads down to Broad Street. Presumably, it will allow students slogging to Fresh Grocer to avoid a dull walk along Broad Street. It's a shame those stairs aren't closer to the subway, where they could imbue Temple's main crossroads with the grand sense of arrival it deserves.

Like so many skyscrapers, Morgan Hall excels at connecting its occupants to the city from on high. Making them part of the city at ground level remains the challenge Temple still has to master.


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, ingasaffron@gmail.com or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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