History of the School

Architectural courses were first offered at the University in 1868, making this the second oldest architecture program in the U.S.  

By the turn of the century it was well established, attracting an outstanding cadre of architects: Walter Cope, John Stewardson, Frank Miles Day, and Wilson Eyre, who formed the first Philadelphia School. In 1903, these luminaries were joined by the youthful Frenchman Paul Philippe Cret, whose inspired teaching—coupled with his having won seven national competitions—further helped to give luster to Penn's architectural program.

In 1914, Penn's original initiative was augmented with lectures in city planning and landscape architecture, while within another seven years fine arts and music had joined architectural studies to create an independent undergraduate School of Fine Arts, modeled on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The School of Fine Arts joined with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Museum School to offer programs in painting and sculpture. In 1924, Landscape Architecture was made into an autonomous department.

The 1950s was a decade of tremendous growth and transformation. Under the leadership of G. Holmes Perkins, Penn embraced modernism and the problems of urban renewal. City Planning became a graduate program and a department, and the landscape architecture program was refocused on urban ecology. The Department of Architecture saw the arrival of structural engineers Robert LeRicolais and August Komendant, along with architects Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Venturi, Robert Geddes, and the 1924 Penn graduate Louis I. Kahn. Kahn was a dedicated educator and philosopher and the spiritual leader of the revived Philadelphia School.

In 1958 the School was renamed the Graduate School of Fine Arts, and before long, the GSFA had become a home for the leading figures in each of the disciplines. In planning they included Lewis Mumford, Charles Abrams, Britton Harris, Martin Meyerson, Edmund Bacon, Denise Scott Brown, and Ann Louise Strong. A renewed Department of Landscape Architecture came under the dynamic leadership of Ian McHarg, while Peter Shepheard, architect, landscape architect and planner, succeeded Perkins as dean. A Civic Design Program later renamed Urban Design and led by David Crane was established as a joint offering by Architecture and City Planning. The Fine Arts Department became a full-fledged professional program under the leadership of Piero Dorazio, Neil Welliver, and Robert Engman. And in the 1980s, the school added a program in Historic Preservation.

Since its inception, one thing has remained constant at Penn: change and renewal. The need to stay vital and relevant has informed all of our choices, whether it's adding new programs such as digital media design or by developing new ties to other resources at Penn, including the Wharton School. In fact, the tradition of working across boundaries remains the school's core strength, and our faculty continues to include some of the most influential, groundbreaking scholars and practitioners in the world. As a more accurate description of the School's major concerns and the advancements we have made across a variety of fields, we renamed ourselves the School of Design—known familiarly as PennDesign—in 2003, and under this new banner plan to advance Penn's leadership in design education and practice into the 21st century.