Houston Hall to be repurposed as ‘student hub’ by vice provost for university life

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Houston Hall on March 30, 2022.

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Houston Hall, the oldest student union in the country, will be the subject of a renovation process to become a hub of student life on campus, according to the Penn Division of Vice Provost for University Life.

Students have expressed for years that Houston Hall is more like a dining hall and study space than a hub of student activity. This project, although still in its early stages, hopes to address that sentiment, according to project managers Saleem Curry and Laurie Hall of VPUL, who said they shared that the primary goal was to transform Houston room into a more inclusive, welcoming and inviting space for students by re-establishing its status as the focal point of student life on Penn’s campus.

Prior to 2017, Houston Hall operated on a conference center model and was self-funded, according to Hall, associate vice president for strategic planning and operations. She added that Acting President Wendell Pritchett has worked to dismantle this model to create a student hub during his time as provost.

“There was a very deliberate mandate from Provost Pritchett to bring Houston Hall back to its mission of being a student center,” Hall said. “Penn was the first university in the nation to invest capital funds—meaningful contributions—in the leisure experience of students.”

Curry, director of University Life Space and Events Management, said that while this project is rather abstract, he and Hall hope to involve students in the process as much as possible. He added that Pritchett’s idea to turn Houston Hall into a student-focused center came first from the students.

“What we [are] what we’re looking to do very soon is to have a university living space steering committee made up of students,” Hall said. She added that this committee would serve as a link between all the different needs of the students.

Curry said he hopes Houston Hall can “position itself as a focal point” on campus and be a hub for all types of campus involvement. Going forward, Curry said he hopes Houston Hall can host weekend events for students.

Students expressed that while there is nothing wrong with the current state of Houston Hall, there is opportunity for improvement to make it a more robust center of student life.

College freshman Sarah Garrison, who works as a welcome ambassador at Houston Hall, said she was excited about the potential of this project to welcome and bring students together on campus.

“In my personal experience, I’ve seen Houston Hall try to implement some of these changes, and I think that’s absolutely brilliant. It would be great to have [Houston Hall] to be a hub for students,” Garrison said.

Garrison noted that some students may feel cut off from Houston Hall when it is used by specific clubs or for scheduled events.

College freshman Julia Rotgin performed in the Festival in one act hosted by the Theater Arts Council at Houston Hall earlier this semester. Even so, she said she had no reason to spend time in Houston Hall and rarely frequented the space.

“Apart from that experience, I haven’t spent a lot of time at Houston Hall,” Rotgin said. “I haven’t been involved in anything else that has used this space.”

While Rotgin frequents Houston MarketPenn’s food market on the lower level, she said she doesn’t frequent any other part of Houston Hall.

“We have the space. We should definitely take advantage of that,” Rotgin said.

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