Student Use of Boarding Houses


Boarding houses have played an integral role throughout the University of Pennsylvania's history. An online article entitled "Penn in the 18th century: Student Life on a Shared Campus" explains that, though most of the Academy and College students were originally from city, the university still attracted a fair number of students from outside the Philadelphia area. Even on the earlier center city campuses, students coming from other parts of Pennsylvania and other colonies would not have been able to attend the university if there hadn't been affordable boarding houses able to accommodate them. A map entitled Development of the PENN Campus: circa 1740 to 1871 on the University of Pennsylvania Facilities website is useful in conveying how the university has developed and the location of the other campuses, which may help the reader understand how the student use of boarding houses has changed over time. The map visualizes the different campus of the University of Pennsylvania over time with respect to one another and conveniently shows the university's range of development at each stage in its early history.

The lack of university housing was brought to the trustees' attention as early as 1761, according to George Thomas and David Brownlee's book, Building America's first university: an historical and architectural guide to the University of Pennsylvania. During that year a committee was formed which believed that although the university was growing rapidly, they were losing potentially interested students because the university had no dormitories to provide for them if they came from afar. As a result, the trustees decided to "have some additional Buildings erected on the Ground belonging to the Academy that might hold a number of the Scholars that came from other Provinces and the West Indies and put them upon a collegiate way of living, as is done at Jersey and New York Colleges." Furthermore, the board suggested holding a public lottery in order to raise funds for "some necessary lodging Rooms to accommodate the Elder part of the Youth that came from abroad; and partly to rebuild the Charity Schools that are in ruinous condition."

Unfortunately, their proposal was rejected by the city because the public believed the college to be under the control of one particular sect, the Anglicans, and did not want to contribute funds that would only benefit one group of people. As an alternative, the trustees approved construction on the north block of a fifty-person dormitory building for both young students and those from abroad. Regrettably, most students wanted more freedom than the dormitory offered and therefore sought other living quarters, as stated in the online article "Penn in the 18th century: Student Life on a Shared Campus." Alas, the dormitory was never a very popular place to live for students and ultimately failed. Hence, boarding houses continued to play an essential role in the university's history.

Disappointed in their unsuccessful investment and loss of funds, the trustees decided to lease the dormitory building in 1775 to a private family, who would manage the boarding of students at affordable rates. In an effort to further control off-campus operations, the trustees collectively resolved to deny admission to boys from out-of-town who did not have residence in lodgings approved by the university. This action further supported the local Philadelphian dominance in the university population and discouraged outsiders from attending the school.


College of Philadelphia, first campus, 4th and Arch Streets (The Dormitory Building is shown on the right.)
1913 Watercolor by Charles M. Lefferts.
Print Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center Website.


Due to the lack of success of the dormitory system at the first campus, no efforts were made to incorporate dormitories into the university's second campus during the early nineteenth century, according to Thomas and Brownlee's book. The same publication also mentions that architect Latrobe planned for the entire third floor of the President's House, which contained the entire college, to be left vacant to provide housing for students if desired, but no such actions were ever taken. The authors go on to say that "for the next century, as the University strayed from Franklin's vision, the much reduced undergraduate population mostly lived at home, while a few boarded in the city. The “collegial” life of other institutions that had encouraged the construction of the New College ended at Penn, not to reappear for nearly a century.”

Evidence of endeavors by the university to assist students in finding appropriate housing accommodations was found in the university catalogues.  For instance, the university's 1830 catalogue advertised that "proper boarding, including washing, &c. can be had in the city, for from $ 2 1/2 to $ 3 per week." The renowned medical school generally attracted the most out-of-town students and an inscription book dated from 1842-1850 from the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center provides a directory of the medical students, where they were originally from and address where they lived in the Philadelphia area. The inscription book was old and hand-written, but the majority of the directory for school years 1842-43 and 1849-50 has been transcribed for documentation and comparison purposes. Most of the students from outside Pennsylvania came from the following states: Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Louisiana, Mississippi, Cuba, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky and Maryland.

In 1871, the university moved again, this time to its current West Philadelphia location. By 1876, West Philadelphia had developed into a largely residential area of private dwellings, boarding houses and hotels due to the establishment of the University of Pennsylvania and the Presbyterian Hospital in the vicinity. The area was only to be faced with more expansion and development with the upcoming Centennial exposition. Sanborn maps from the Free Library show the footprints of University City boarding houses at known addresses in the periods before and after the Centennial, in the late 19th century.

A set of trustees minutes from circa 1872 alluded to a Student's Boarding House Committee, which suggests that students took part in the regulation of off-campus housing. In The Quadrangle, Elizabeth A. Linck, class of 1990, states that except for a few students who occupied a few minor dormitories on campus before the Quadrangle Dormitory was built, most students commuted to school and resided in family houses or boarding houses within the city. Since this was the case with most students, the university administration was not inclined to provide campus housing.

Up to when the Quadrangle was built in 1895, the university continued to have little concern for student housing and the only housing assistance provided by the university was a list of boarding houses that it approved, inspected and supervised. The boarding houses listed were deemed sufficient to house the small number of non-local students without Philadelphia relatives with whom they could stay. The boarding house list Linck refers to is also referenced in various University of Pennsylvania catalogues from the late 19th century, including one for the school year 1884-1885. In that catalogue, under the accommodations section, it was written that "good board can be had near the University and a list of recommended boarding-houses can be seen on application to the Rev. Jesse Y. Burk, Secretary of the Board of Trustees, at the University." Unfortunately, the University of Pennsylvania Archives does not possess the said list in its collection, nor any related records from Rev. Jesse Y. Burk.

Linck attributes the absence of dormitories at the university to two different things: the local character of the student body and the provincial character of the university. Sometime before 1885, a letter published in The Nation revealed that Penn had rejected the proposal of a legacy committed to dormitory construction. The author of the letter explained that the university had a "settled policy" of instilling its students with the "doctrines, ideas, atmosphere and surroundings" of Philadelphia and believed that the establishment of common dormitories would disconnect the boys to the city. The letter did not necessarily reflect the university's true position on the matter, but does offer one explanation of why the majority of Penn students came from local areas in the 1880's.  Furthermore, Trustees minutes from December 2, 1884 indicated that boarding houses were heavily favored over dormitories, which received adverse criticism by the trustees.

Dormitories (built 1895), Quadrangle, Memorial Tower, exterior. Photograph taken 1905.
Photograph Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center Website.


However, Linck goes on to say that the university had changed significantly from the day it moved to West Philadelphia to when the Quadrangle was built in 1895. During that time, Penn launched eight new academic programs and was receiving a national reputation for excellence in education. With the increased outside interest and more ways of attracting students to the university, the administration extended its reach to concern itself with student's lives outside the classroom and laboratories. The Board of Trustees finally reacted to the rising geographical diversity in 1891, when they considered a proposal to build a dormitory to allow for non-Philadelphians to attend Penn more easily. This action realigned the administration's goals with the underlying principles that Benjamin Franklin originally built this university upon. Not only did the university feel that it should provide for the student in all respects, physically, socially, intellectually, morally, religiously, etc., but it should be a home to the student as well, so that the university may watch over its students as a knowing father. Thomas and Brownlee's book describes how University Provost Harrison, when making the report on the proposed dormitory system, remembered his days as a student and the unnecessary struggles students faced due to the lack of common dormitories on Penn's campus:

"Those students from a distance found such boarding places as they could in the neighborhood of the old site on Ninth Street. Many establishments were devoted exclusively to their use, and there was a certain—not always salutary—charm in the Bohemian side of the medical student’s life, while attending lectures in Philadelphia. For the rest, the students of the University came decorously every morning from their parent’s homes on Walnut Street or from far-off Germantown and were safely home by candle-light. And if now and then a man came from the interior of the state, or from some southern state, it was only because he had friends in Philadelphia with whom he could find a safe and real home. There is in the Hall life of the former [the English Universities] something which has been hitherto lacking in our university, and that is something which has been needed to give full tone to the University career. It is not a question so much of lecture rooms and laboratories; it is of his home while at the University. Around him are the traditions of centuries; for in this Hall lived and studied men who went forth to win fame that reflected honor upon their college. It is a vital part of the educational process.”


Boarding House on the Southwest corner of Front Street and Washington Avenue (1002-04 South Front Street). Taken July 21, 1916. Sign reads: "Restaurant and Boarding House Meals 1015-20." The significance of "1015-20" is unknown. Photograph Courtesy of Philadelphia City Archives.

Boarding House. 1009-1011 South Front Street. Taken March 17, 1915.
Photograph Courtesy of the Philadelphia City Archives.


The two photographs of boarding houses shown above were found using a business directory at the Philadelphia City Archives, which linked business types to specific photograph and information files.


Since the building of the Quadrangle and other dormitories, boarding houses have seen little press in the university's history, though they have still played a part in it, if ever so minor. A record of university approved boarding houses was created once again in 1912 by University Recorder George E. Nitzsche, who was a 1898 Penn law school graduate. As Recorder, Nitzsche created lists of the student body according to geographic location. Nitzsche was also responsible for maintaining records of boarding and apartment houses and acted as a liaison between students and landlords in case any quarrels arose. Unfortunately, none of Nitzsche's records relating to boarding houses have survived.

A record that did survive was "A Notice to all Undergraduate Students" from 1934, which outlined strict student requirements for obtaining boarding house residence: "For the protection of students residing in approved boarding houses such students are required to sign a lease drawn up by the University of Pennsylvania, and are advised to request receipts for all payments. The list of approved lodging and boarding houses near the University, all of which have been personally inspected, may be obtained from the Office of the Director of Student Welfare." The notice also stated that only seniors were allowed to live in a boarding house, but only one that was listed as approved by the university. The old student freedom associated with boarding houses from nearly two centuries ago was now only available to select students, and with added restrictions at that.

The most recent university resource found pertaining to boarding houses was a List of Approved Rooming and Boarding Houses, which the university published for the 1945-46 school year, a copy of which still remains in the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center. This list shows that boarding houses were still very much a part of university life at that time. The list displays the boarding house location, name of the boarding-house keeper, number of occupants it could accommodate, and costs of single and double rooms per week or per month. A graphic display of the list was created for the viewer's convenience.

Photographs of 3440-3446 Chestnut Street, which once contained a boarding house.
The left photograph was taken in 1958 and the right photograph's date is unknown but was probably taken earlier judging by the car model designs.
Photographs Courtesy of the Free Library Prints and Photographs Collection.


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Website by Ashley C. Aiken

University of Pennsylvania

HSPV 600: Documentation

Professor Jeffrey A. Cohen

Fall 2005