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University of Pennsylvania

This 1955 photo shows 36th Street at Penn during subway construction.

In this Evening Bulletin photo of orientation activities at House One, Rodney Davis, 16, take notes on the courses he plans to take. Each sheet has a course description. 

In this Evening Bulletin photo, new Free School students, Gordenia Burrell (left) and Norman Washington, chat with teacher Richard Seymour as other students and faculty members gather (background) in House One. Seymour was the head teacher at House One (3833 Walnut Street). 

Left to right: John Mount, of the training section of the U.S. Post Office; Linda Powell, West Philadelphia High School (WPHS), junior moving to the Free School; Dr. Aase Eriksen, Penn GSE lecturer and director of the Free School; Donald Colman, WPHS junior also at the Free School; and Richard Seymour, head teacher of the Free School's first unit, House One (3833 Walnut Street) review books for House One.”

Penn GSE today faces Walnut Street. Fifty years after its involvement in developing the Free School, Penn GSE continues to prepare urban educators and assists local schools with curriculum and instruction, general planning, and resource development. 

The University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE), shown here as a new building in 1965, provided staff to support the operation of the Free School. The project’s first director, Aase Eriksen, was a junior member of the Penn faculty. The primary source of teachers for the Free School was Penn GSE’s Experimental Program in Urban Education, many of whose students were graduates of Ivy League colleges. Entering this Master’s-degree program in the fall of 1969, they were expected to work as part-time interns in the local schools. Yet Eriksen recruited seven of them, all White, to begin full-time teaching in the annexes in the winter of 1970. Whiteness and youthful progressivism were a source of tension with the Free School’s community board.

Penn President Gaylord P. Harnwell’s leadership team provided $60,000 in seed funds to help establish the West Philadelphia Community Free School. The motivation was starkly political. In the late 1960s, the University faced ominous budget deficits accruing from large-scale campus redevelopment projects in the 1960s urban renewal era. The University sought to protect its huge investment in an expanded and modernized campus by controlling development in the low-income Market Street corridor a few blocks north of the campus.


Acting through a non-profit coalition of “higher eds and meds” named the West Philadelphia Corporation, which Penn dominated, Harnwell’s leadership team and their allies took a heavy hand in establishing the University City Science Center along Market Street. And they promised financial and logistical support for the creation of University City High School, which Penn and the School District of Philadelphia planned to be a specialized high school of science, comparable to Bronx Science High School of New York City and affiliated with the University City Science Center.


In Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950–2000 (Philadelphia, 2015), John Puckett and Mark Lloyd offer a “reasoned speculation” as to why the Harnwell administration decided to shift University support from the high school project to the Community Free School. First, vocal Black and White activists strongly opposed a high school of science, believing it would favor the children of University City’s white-professional-managerial elites. Perhaps of greater significance, Penn worried that the perennially underfunded school district would be unable to fulfill its end of the bargain and leave the now cash-strapped University holding the bag. “With Jessica Orliff, who wrote a scholarly paper on University City High School, we would also conjecture that the University’s role in the West Philadelphia [Community] Free School presented an honorable and relatively inexpensive way out of this dilemma” (p. 113). 

PGH’s closing in 1977 unleashed a bidding war for the leveled site that was eventually won by a consortium that included Penn, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Children’s Seashore House, and the Veteran’s Administration. The consortium, called the PGH Development Corporation, built the Philadelphia Center for Healthcare Sciences, a complex of seven new buildings on the former PGH property.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Blockley Almshouse farmed out its almshouse services and its “lunatic asylum” and recast itself as the Philadelphia General Hospital, whose clinical services significantly improve after the Second World War.

In 1872, the University of Pennsylvania relocated its small campus from the central City to Blockley Almshouse property that the City deeded to the University.