The Writers House

After months of renovations, today's reopening of the Kelly Writers House will be marked by speeches and a concert.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
December 11, 1997

Donald Lamm of W.W. Norton & Co.

A crowd of students listens Tuesday as Donald Lamm, chairperson of W. W. Norton & Co.'s trade-books division, speaks on the state of the publishing industry.

Photo by Barry Lipschutz-Perry/The Daily Pennsylvanian

In the kitchen, cornbread is baking. A jazz percussionist's friend critiques his poetry at the kitchen table. Two artists stand on chairs in the dining room, hanging newly framed masterpieces beneath the freshly painted molding and burgundy trim.

Inside the living room, affectionately dubbed the "Arts Cafe" an esteemed publisher shares wry words of wisdom from 30 years in the business.

"You can get a six-figure salary starting out with Morgan Stanley, and if you're lucky, you'll probably end up with that as an editor in publishing," he says, laughing.

Most of those in the Writers House -- freshmen, sophomores, graduate students and staff members alike - are the ones who aren't at Penn so they can one day take home a big paycheck. But they are accompanied by a few who are and that kind of diversity is the point of the Writers House.

After six months of renovations financed by a $1.1 million gift from University alumnus Paul Kelly, the Writers House at 3805 Locust Walk celebrates its reopening today with a day-long "open house."

There are the English majors - and the Finance majors and the Psychology graduate students and the Nursing staff - all united by the heady aroma of coffee beans and the yellow glow of brand-new lighting.

"We just attract all kinds of people," said Writers House Director and English Professor Al Fllreis. "We seek diversity."

"There's a sense and a spirit associated with [the house]," he added, noting that the student, faculty and staff collaboration in running the house makes it "probably one of a kind."

Since it reopened October 27, the Writers House has been the site of a seminar, workshop, meeting or jazz concert nearly every day.

Next semester, six writing classes will hold regular meetings there - quite an achievement for a program that operated out of a suite in High Rise East for six months during the renovations, hosting functions in locates like Houston Hall and Chats.

While the program was in exile, several speakers and students indicated that they were eager to move back to the 19th century edifice, which formerly housed the University Chaplain.

"I feel kind of gypped," said Philadelphia magazine executive editor Mark Cohen, a 1984 College alumnus who was forced to speak to the community last September in Houston Hall because of the Writers House renovations.

"I remember from my days that Wharton and pre-Med really seem to dominate the agenda, and this really puts writing and the liberal arts at the forefront" Cohen said.

College senior Nate Chinen, who serves as the house's assistant director, added that it's "certainly a place where things happen."

"But it's also just a place where you just hang out, and that's how I [originally] got to know the spirit of the house," he added. "I spent 12 hours there today."

Kerry Sherin, a 1987 College alumna who both works and lives inside the house as its resident coordinator, is equally enamored of the house.

The Kelly Writers House

The Kelly Writers House

"There was never a space and a place for writers and readers to come and claim their territory and say, 'We matter'," she said.

With then-English Department Undergraduate Chairperson Filreis as its leader, the writing community received the keys to the house in November 1995 from University President Judith Rodin and Provost Stanley Chodorow as part of an administrative effort to create nonresidential program hubs.

Sherin, the only person who actually lives in the house, said that students involved with the program take on an "amazing sense of ownership."

Indeed, anyone is welcome to sip coffee inside the house, host an event or become involved with the planning committee. When the time came to furnish the house, each member of the planning group was budgeted $50 to find a wooden chair that suited his or her "personal taste."

For a house with an 850-member email listserv, its programming is amazingly flexible.

"Let's say you're on the planning committee," explained Chinen, referring to the open group that schedules events for the house. "So you really like, for example, James Tate's poetry. Just ask around, send him a letter, see if he's willing and how much he'd need for a stipend. More often than not it works out."

Such was the case when Chinen asked veteran Philadelphia saxophonist Julian Pressley to perform with The Virgin House Band - for which Chinen is a drummer - during one of their weekly Thursday night Writers House gigs.

For $200, Pressley agreed - and he and the band played to a packed Writers House November 20.

What is the place of jazz in a house devoted to writing? Like coffee, it has always been a natural accompaniment. And the performance was a perfect example of the varied purposes the House has taken on.

Poetry readings with jazz interludes spawned a monthly midnight radio show on Penn's FM radio station, WXPN, the artwork of the Artist's Guild is often on display. And today's festivities include a marathon poetry reading as well as a performance by the Virgin House Band.

Even the writing workshops have shown remarkable diversity. On Tuesday, Donald Lamm, chairperson of W. W. Norton & Co.'s trade-books division, gave the last in a series of lectures by officials from the publishing company. And David Breskin, who has written for GQ and Esquire magazines, gave a poetry reading two weeks ago.

But not everyone is impressed by the diverse community and variety of activities at the Writers House. Gilbert Sanders, a 1949 College alumnus who writes a monthly column for The (Baltimore) Sun, said that after speaking to a Writers House group in October he was disappointed with the lack of interest in nonfiction writing.

The Writers House seems to attract only "people interested in writing poetry, manuscripts for television and movies," Sanders complained.

"You go into that Writers House, which is land," he said.

Sherin conceded that "a journalist's sensibilities are a lot different from a poet's." But she disagreed with Sanders' notion that a journalist-creative writer dichotomy existed, adding that she thinks the planning committee will continue to define its mission through the guest speakers it invites to the house.

"We continue to have discussions as to what is the Writers House and what we want to spend our money on, and do we want to bring in screenwriters, the theorists, journalists," Sherin said.

"Our conclusion is really no conclusion -just that it's working right now," she added.