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Silverman Hall’s History

January 24, 2019

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Penn Law’s premier building at 34th between Chestnut and Sansom Streets, designed by the famed architects Cope and Stewardson and opened at the turn of the 20th century, has a storied history.  Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon describes that history:

“Until the turn of the twentieth century, the Law Department of the University of Pennsylvania (as it was then known) was in a physical sense a rootless institution. In 1879, the law school had 141 students enrolled in its two year program, almost all of them from Philadelphia. The school migrated from one set of cramped quarters to another in the 1880s and 1890s, ranging from the new Philadelphia City Hall, to the Girard Life Insurance Building at Broad and Chestnut, and Independence Hall. Although the university administration attempted repeatedly in the second half of the nineteenth century to attach the law school to the new West Philadelphia campus, the gravitational pull of courts and private law offices drew the school back to the city, where students spent their days as apprentices, faculty as practitioners. As William Draper Lewis put it, “The normal concept of a law school was that of a place where in the late afternoon lawyers, harassed with their own business, read lectures to sleepy office students.”

Through the construction of a physical space that redefined the scope of legal training for students and the responsibilities of legal academics, Penn Law swelled the growth of university-based Law Schools dedicated to professional training, and at the same time added a perspective unique to Penn, and to Lewis. The central role of legal history in this transformation is evident not only in the new Law School curriculum (which included a course in the history of the common law, taught by Dean Lewis himself and based on Lewis’s recently published edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries) but in the entire structure. The design of the building consciously echoes the seventeenth-century designs of English architect Sir Christopher Wren…

When Lewis Hall (now Silverman Hall, then known simply as the “Law School Building”) opened in February of 1900, the Law School had grown exponentially — 246 students from many states were registered, half of whom intended to practice law outside of Philadelphia, and many of whom had earned bachelor’s degrees before admittance. Although the School still allowed admission from non-college graduates with degrees from “advanced” public high schools or upon a rigorous examination, the catalogue warned applicants that “A large number of those who study law are college graduates; and those who are not cannot hope, except in rare instances, to compete successfully with the college man.”

…When Lewis joined the faculty in 1896, senior lawyers warned him that teaching law was best considered not a profession, but a hobby. Lewis made sure that the new school was a place of the utmost dedication, for professors as well as students…law professors were required to devote themselves full-time to teaching, research, and writing. The Law School was integrated into the university, which was itself now systematized according to district new academic disciplines such as political science, economics, anthropology and history. Lawyers, and law teachers, had been “men of letters” in general sense; now they would be trained in a long tradition of legal thought, collected together for the first time into a formal and distinctly jurisprudential curriculum rather than in imitation of particular lawyers.”

Each day as students and faculty approached the new Law School, the building spoke to them, presenting not a local vision of apprenticeship in a law office, but a catalogue of legal history that was international in scope, reaching back to the Roman origins of code law and forward to the recent past of nineteenth-century America. The official description of the building and the medallions encircling it made the expectation clear: “Circled so by greatness the student of these days to come will be untrue to all that his eyes behold if he makes no effort to emulate their example.”

You can read Professor Gordon’s full article (including footnotes, omitted for brevity) here.

At its opening, Lewis/Silverman Hall had formal “reading rooms” at the north and south ends of its second floor.  In the early years, the rooms featured desks with small bells by which the student could summon a library assistant to retrieve reading materials. Generations of Penn Law students studied in these rooms, which over time added stacks for the growing collection. We’ve posted some photos of the room over time; you’ll find them here.

In 1994, Biddle Law Library moved to its current home in Tanenbaum Hall.  At that time, plans were instituted to transform the reading rooms into large classrooms and an all-purpose room.  Those renovations were completed in 1998, with the creation of two 80 person rooms in S-240A and 240B,  one 70 person room in S-245A , and a multi-purpose room.  It is these classrooms that will be renovated – bringing these spaces to new life, creating new and equally important physical space in the educational lives of current and future Penn Law students.

Description of Silverman Hall before 1960s renovation