Spurred by one of the largest gifts in its history, the University of the Arts is in the midst of a plan worth tens of millions of dollars to renovate its current facilities and expand its already large presence around Broad and Spruce Streets.

Some of the projects are already done — like the transformation of an old, sculpture-studio building into a $1 million high-tech fabrication studio that gives students use of a $40,000 laser cutter, 3D printer, and other art-making machinery alongside more traditional workshop equipment.

Even more ambitious efforts are on the horizon. The arts school is considering a major new residence building on or near South Broad Street — a new dorm that might result in the school rejiggering its real estate holdings by selling dorm buildings in the area.

Architectural rendering of a renovated lobby at the University of the Arts’ Gershman Y building.
JacobsWyper Architect
Architectural rendering of a renovated lobby at the University of the Arts’ Gershman Y building.

"The real estate for us is really key to success," said David Yager, who took over as University of the Arts president and CEO in January 2016 and calls the facilities project a "monumental enhancement that will forever change the institution."

The project was kicked into action by a bequest. The university is the beneficiary of $25 million left to the school by Dorrance "Dodo" Hill Hamilton, the Campbell Soup heiress who died in 2017. The only other gift that large the university has ever received is another $25 million gift in 2006, also from Hamilton.

A visible philanthropist known for her wide hats and a green thumb, Hamilton served for decades on the board of the university, including a number of years as chairman. The new bequest, being given through a trust, is the cornerstone of the university's $50 million fund drive, which it says is its first-ever comprehensive campaign.

"It took a while to get it to a point where everybody believed it was the right thing to do, and clearly the turning point was Dodo Hamilton's gift of $25 million, which for me said if we're ever going to do a comprehensive campaign, this is the opportunity to do it," said Yager.

With Hamilton's bequest, the school has $34 million raised so far.

But $50 million from philanthropy won't pay for everything on the school's wish list. It will be augmented with money from other sources:

  • $11 million from the 2016 sale of the Merriam Theater to the Kimmel Center.
  • $12 million from the recent sale of more than $51 million in bonds (the remainder was used to refinance old debt).
  • $6 million from land already sold by the university to Dranoff Properties immediately north of Broad Street Ministry across from the Kimmel Center.

Altogether, the funding sources would bring $79 million, though Yager says he is holding out the possibility that the facilities makeover could require less money.

In addition to buildings, the university is seeking to fund new programs and five endowed chairs in five years. Its first-ever endowed chair, funded with a gift from longtime university trustee Brian Effron and his wife, Sherry Effron, was filled in August by glass artist Daniel Clayman. A new international MFA in dance was launched this past summer.

How much of the anticipated $79 million goes to building and how much to endowed chairs and programs "is not set in stone," said university spokesperson Paul F. Healy, "as it will depend significantly on the preferences of donors as to where they wish their gifts to go. So if we said X% of the funds would be channeled to building projects but many large donors earmarked their gifts to creating new programs, the percentage would shift."

New public spaces and a major new dance venue

But the majority of the campaign is about buildings. Right now, University of the Arts students don't have a lot of large public spaces to comingle casually, says Yager, "so most of the gathering tends to be in their discipline, and what many of us want to do is give them a more holistic experience across the arts by casually bumping into people."

A renovated Gershman Y building at Broad and Pine Streets is seen as serving that function, and renovations for a student center there have just begun. "Over the next four years, we will renovate the entire building, and there are great naming opportunities," says Yager — including a chance to rename the Gershman Y building itself.

The renovation of the lower level of the Gershman Y building, where the pool once was, will include a gym and film-screening room.
JacobsWyper Architects
The renovation of the lower level of the Gershman Y building, where the pool once was, will include a gym and film-screening room.

An old sealed-up skylight will be opened, bringing light down into a first-floor lobby, as well as a lower level (where the pool once was), which is to be outfitted with a new fitness center, yoga and pilates rooms, showers, and lockers, and a 70- to 80-seat film-screening room. The first floor would become a roomy lobby with a café and gallery.

Not yet under construction is a major new dance venue on the third floor. Yager envisions the old Levitt Auditorium being remade into a theater for dance performances and broadcasts.

"We're currently looking for a donor for that space, but conceptually we've figured out what we need to do there, and it's major," he says. "It will be very flexible, probably seating in the 600 range, which is perfect, but can be configured to 100 to 200 seats also, more of a black box than proscenium. To me, that's really exciting.

"Our dance program is really strong," he adds. "A lot of choreographers come from New York, our contacts are really deep in the dance world internationally, and if we do this it will be a major change for us and also a major hub for Philadelphia in terms of contemporary dance."

A green roof, too?

Also being explored is the possibility of making use of the roof as a special events space, for student lounge areas or a courtyard green. "The university doesn't have a lot of green space," says architect Peter M. Saylor, whose firm, JacobsWyper Architects, is working on various aspects of the renovation, "and this may be a way to have an interesting place for students to look down at Hamilton [the school's 'front door' neoclassical facade at Broad and Pine Streets]."

Another aspect of the remake calls for the creation of the Center for Immersive Media, which will serve dance, art, film, and game-design students and faculty seeking to incorporate virtual reality and human/computer interactivity into their work, says a university spokesperson. The new center will go in Juniper Hall, in a space currently housing the theater scene shop, which is being relocated.

In the Terra building at Broad and Walnut, 3½ floors are currently being renovated with a $1 million recording studio and space to accommodate music school functions leaving the Merriam Theater.

The new fabrication studio, nestled in the complex of structures at Broad and Pine, will serve not just obvious users like sculptors, but also others, like dancers and theater majors looking to make a prop. Already, the facility has helped a music student fabricating a new kind of musical instrument — designing a mouthpiece, printing it on the 3D printer, testing it out for tone, making adjustments, and printing out another version.

"Often the performing arts gets overlooked when it comes to making things, but those are the students that need access to equipment their areas don't have, and that is where the maker space comes in," says Noah Z. Brock, maker space manager.

As for the new dorm building, a decision on a site and configuration is expected within a month.

In making the argument for the school's first comprehensive campaign, Yager likes to point out that for a lot of colleges and universities, especially those with large endowments, the scale of gifts has to be enormous to have an impact. "At Stanford, for $5 million they don't even look at you for a building. One of the differences with us is that a gift of $100,000 makes a difference and we can actually show what that does."

The entire campaign will "dramatically change the student experience," Yager says.

"I see my job as leaving this place in better shape than when I got here and to really be thinking about the future. To be successful for the next 25 years, what do we need to do in the next three or four years?"