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G. Holmes Perkins, Dean & Architect

G. Holmes Perkins

Educator, urban planner, and architect G. Holmes Perkins, Emeritus University Professor of Architecture and Urbanism, who remade architectural instruction at Penn in the second half of the 20th century, died peacefully at his home in Chestnut Hill August 25 at the age of 99.

Nationally, Dean Perkins' educational leadership earned him election as Chancellor of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1964. He received the AIA Medal in 1977 as a "distinguished architect, urban planner, and educator." The text of the award noted his role at Penn, where he "assembled a remarkable faculty which included many of the acknowledged giants of the profession," where "his influence, his guidance, and his vision have been instrumental in developing and nurturing an entire generation of outstanding architects." Finally, the award named him as "a major figure in the development of the design movement known as the Philadelphia School." He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1972 by Penn for his contribution to the institution. Among the many honors awarded to him, he was especially proud of the Topaz Medallion—the AIA/ASCA Joint Award for Excellence in Architecture Education, which he earned in 1979.

Born in 1904 in Cambridge, Massachusetts,  he attended Phillips Exeter Academy then Harvard, where he completed an A.B. in 1926, majoring in chemistry, and went on to study architecture there. During his three years of graduate study  he twice won the University tennis championship. On graduation day in 1929, he received the AIA medal for scholastic achievement and won the Massachusetts State doubles tennis championship. In the following years he twice won the Massachusetts singles title in tennis and in 1933 represented the U.S. in the Lapham Trophy squash competition with Canada. He remained an avid tennis player until the end of his life, playing regularly on the grass courts of the Philadelphia Cricket Club until the age of 98.

He began his career as an instructor at the University of Michigan, hoping to escape New England for "the freer and more progressive atmosphere of the West." Harvard called him back the following year, however, with an offer to assume the Charles Dyer Norton Professorship of Regional Planning. There he revolutionized the teaching of city planning while initiating the closest collaboration with Walter Gropius' architectural students. Dean Perkins became an active protagonist in the struggle within the profession for a modern architecture and, with Joseph Hudnut and Walter Gropius at Harvard, he fostered the revolution in architectural education that swept the country following WWII.

Dean Perkins remained at Harvard until 1950, teaching during a period in which education in architecture and allied fields there would undergo crucial changes, in part because of his contributions. When he began teaching at Harvard, the architecture program was under the direction of Jean Jacques Haffner, who, like Paul Cret at Penn, based his teaching methods on those of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The direction of Harvard's program shifted significantly in 1936 when Joseph Hudnut was recruited as dean, with a mandate to move the curriculum toward emerging European modernist style and philosophy. That same year, architecture, landscape, and city planning programs were brought together to form the Graduate School of Design (GSD). In 1937, Walter Gropius was brought on as professor and chairman of the department of architecture. 

In his private practice Dean Perkins built several modern houses that gained national recognition, and was a finalist in two  architectural competitions for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art and the St. Louis "Gateway to the West."

During World War II, Dean Perkins took a leave of absence from Harvard to work in D.C. with the National Housing Agency; during his final year there, he served as acting director of its Urban Development Division. He returned to Harvard in 1945 as the chairman of the city planning department. With Hudnut's support and Gropius's participation, Dean Perkins developed a first-year joint curriculum that brought architecture, landscape and planning departments together in a collaborative venture. Shared studio projects  encouraged design cooperation among the students of the different disciplines, a goal of the GSD from its inception only truly realized after Dean Perkins became chairman of the  department.He remained at Harvard until he was recruited to head the School of Fine Arts at Penn in 1950. 

Upon his arrival at Penn in 1951 as dean, he set about transforming the faculty and the curriculum of the school in the collaborative, progressive image of Harvard's GSD. He made sweeping changes in the faculty, bringing in young and talented teachers who would revitalize programs and move away from the Beaux-Arts methods and subjects that had dominated the school since the turn of the century. His earliest appointments included the author and critic Lewis Mumford, as well as Martin Meyerson (who became president emeritus of Penn), Blanche von Lemko, and former Harvard students Robert Geddes, Ian McHarg, and Stanislawa Nowicki. They were later joined by other notable practitioners, including Louis I. Kahn (who returned to his alma mater in 1955), Romaldo Giurgola, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, Mario Romanach, Ann Louise Strong, David A. Wallace, Robert Mitchell, Edmund Bacon, George Qualls, John Bower, David Crane, Robert Le Ricolais, and Erwin Gutkind. As an educator, Dean Perkins intended that the graduates of his school enter the professions equipped to make humane environments for urban living. He was confident of modern architecture's capacity to replace the slum, and as an architect of the urban environment, he valued the creation of an environment in harmony with nature.

Under his leadership, a fine arts program was established in the School. The Institute for Urban Studies was organized to undertake sponsored research and to foster relationships between the faculty and the City through contract research. Doctoral programs were approved and, in 1958, the School of Fine Arts became a graduate division. He continued as Dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts (GSFA) until 1971, and became Emeritus University Professor of Architecture and Urbanism in 1975. Dean Perkins had been chairman of the Graduate Group in Architecture (Ph.D. program) since 1964, and he continued as chairman until 1982. After that  he continued to supervise Ph.D. candidates. The School was renamed the School of Design in 2003.

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) was Dean Perkins' brainchild, born from his desire to expose students to what was "new and happening" in art and culture. A 1961 exhibition in a hastily-arranged temporary space, which included works by Piero Dorazio, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Helen Frankenthaler, among others, was an instant success with the student community. The  reaction convinced Penn to sponsor an institute that would assure similar undertakings would continue. ICA was formally founded in 1963 with the inaugural show of paintings by abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, followed by one-man shows of Andy Warhol and Christo. Dean Perkins was honored by ICA in 2001.

Dean Perkins's principal professional activity outside of his academic positions was as an urban planner. He served as a design consultant to numerous cities, including Baltimore's Inner Harbor. He advised the British Ministry of Town and Country Planning in 1946 and during the 1950s the United Nations and the Turkish Government, where he wrote the Charter and organized the Middle East Technical University which today has 18,000 students on a 10,000 acre campus in Ankara.

His public service began as president of the  Philadelphia Housing Association from which he was called by Mayors Clark and Dilworth to head the Zoning Commission and the City Planning Commission of which he was chairman for ten years when Philadelphia led the nation in efforts to renew the City. Soon after he came to Philadelphia, he became one of the key figures in the city's redevelopment and renewal. He served on the board of the Citizens' Council on City Planning, 1953-1955, as president of the Philadelphia Housing Association, 1954-1955, and as chairman of the city's Zoning Advisory Commission, 1956-1958. Most important, he chaired the city's Planning Commission, 1958- 1968. He was also a member of the Philadelphia Development Corporation, 1958-1968, of the Philadelphia Commission on Higher Education, 1953-1968, of the Philadelphia Port Corporation, 1964-1968, and of the Fairmount Park Art Association, for whom he served as trustee  for 40 years, 1957-1997. 

He remained actively involved at Penn through his two passions—the Architectural Archives, which he founded in the late 1970s, and the architectural rare book collection, which he established in 1965.

Dean Perkins was the driving force behind the founding of the Architectural Archives. He became its first curator, and he continued to guide its development, long after he turned over the day-to-day work to others. The Architectural Archives preserves over 400 collections from the 18th century to the present. Included are the drawings, models, and records of such designers as Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mitchell/Giurgola, Edmund  Bacon, Ian McHarg, Robert LeRicolais, and Friedrich Weinbrenner.    

The rare book room in the Fine Arts Library was named the Perkins Library in 1983 in honor of his work in organizing and developing the rare book collection and his many gifts to enhance it. The Perkins Library is comprised of approximately 2,500 books, with associated prints and maps. Housed in the Fisher Fine Arts Library, the Perkins Library reflects Perkins' convictions about the total environment of architecture. Throughout the years of his retirement, he regularly scanned the catalogues of rare book dealers to acquire titles for his collection.

He had a substantial influence on Penn's architecture in the 1960s and 1970s through his participation in the Master Plan for the undergraduate residence Superblock, which consisted of both high-and low-rise dorms, and his oversight of the acquisition of land for the project from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. 

   He is survived by a son, Gray, and by five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.     A Distinguished Visiting Professorship has been established in Dean Perkins' honor at the  School of Design. For information contact the Office of the Dean, PennDesign, 210 South 34th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6311. (215) 898-8738. E-mail: converse@design.upenn.edu.


To Report A Death

Almanac appreciates being informed of the deaths of current and former faculty and staff members, students, and other members of the University community.

However, notices of alumni deaths should be directed to the Alumni Records Office at Room 545, Franklin Building, (215) 898-8136  or e-mail record@ben.dev.upenn.edu.



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 2, September 7, 2004


September 7, 2004
Volume 51 Number 2


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