It’s another cold, violently windy day in Philadelphia, but in the kitchen, sun streams through the window above the sink. People bustle around the counter, pulling out milk from the fridge, frying eggs and pouring coffee. Cups clink, spoons stir and voices vibrate.
The scene looks stolen from a commercial for Folgers or Eggo waffles, but it's just another weekday morning at the kitchen—or as Professor Al Filreis calls it, the “core” of Kelly Writers House.
“Everyone is a human in a kitchen,” Filreis, Faculty Director of Kelly Writers House, said.
The Writers House is 1,000 feet away from Huntsman Hall. Inside, staggered staircases lead to a jigsaw of rooms where students study on couches, publication groups review submissions and famous authors share meals around a dining table. Doors are open daily, and anyone in Philadelphia can enter to find conversations about not only writing, but also ideas at large. Creating and maintaining a space where community and connections organically flourish does take work—in this case, the work of more than 30 students and adults. While 3805 Locust Walk provides the space, it’s the people that have come through the past 20 years who have made it a home.
“When I first started, Al gave me two big areas to cover,” Director Jessica Lowenthal said. “Don’t mess up the community, and don’t burn down the house.”
In the 1990s, then–University President Judith Rodin made an initiative to strengthen the quality of intellectual experience on campus, Filreis said. On Locust, there was an old house where the Chaplain and his family lived, but were ready to move from. The house is one of the oldest on campus, built in 1851 and designed by popular Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan. English Professor Bob Lucid proposed the idea of having a house for writers there, and Filreis, then the undergraduate chair of English, loved it.
“In 1995, the house was completely empty, and one day, I and a group of students and faculty went inside and sat on the floor and thought about how to create a house for a writer,” Filreis said.
"The Hub," a group Filreis describes as student activists and radicals, set out to shape the Writers House. They drafted a charter for the space with key principles: The house should be open to everyone, be democratic and explore all kinds of art. Each room was given a purpose that, for the most part, remains today.
“We figured writers are more likely to thrive where they feel at home with coffee, tea and food,” Al said.
Food truly is one force for community building at the house. The kitchen is always stocked with that ingredient you forgot on your grocery trip. So many of KWH’s signature events incorporate food as a way to engage with texts. The Edible Books Party calls on the community to create dishes inspired by a specific piece of literature. Of Rice and Ramen, for example, took inspiration from Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men. The Mind of Winter event juxtaposes warm stew and cold poems. On March 30, the Marathon Reading will pack as much of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into seven hours as possible, as well as fuel its guests with themed food.
“Here, the process is as important as the product,” Lowenthal said about the execution of events. “That is how we build community; we provide open spaces to do fun things. One of my jobs is identifying ideas that come from the community and ushering them into programs, art projects and meetings.”
Planning is a natural fit for Lowenthal. She joined the Hub—the core of faculty, student, staff, and alumni volunteers who still meet once a week to plan programming—while completing an English doctoral program at Penn. When the opportunity to take over as KWH director arose, the timing and job felt right.
“I thought, this sounds like the perfect job. I’m already involved in Kelly Writers House. I’m interested in undergrad life, alternative pedagogies and the resources that should be available to undergrads,” Lowenthal said. “As faculty, you don’t always have that direct connection. Scholarship, in the end, wasn’t that interesting to me.”
Now, she is able to talk with students about their next literary magazines, invite contemporary authors making history to campus and make sure traditions continue. She is already planning events for next spring. Yet no matter how many events they hold, the critical component is to ensure an audience will come.
“There is lots of outreach in email. You can have someone come to an event once, but you have to continually remind people and work on those relationships,” Lowenthal said. “Another aspect is authorizing people to do so too.”
A core group that builds and spreads the KWH spirit is the students who work there, mainly as work–study. Alli Katz, programing coordinator for the Writers House, supervises the hiring process and said she specifically tries to get freshmen who will continue at the house for their whole college career.
Autumn Wynde (C '19) originally wasn’t sure if she wanted to come to Penn. But a meeting with Jamie Lee Josselyn, associate director for recruitment, changed that.
“I found an inclusive and transparent community that’s ready to talk about real life aspects,” Autumn said. “I don’t think I would stay at Penn without Kelly Writers House.”
Having worked there since her freshman year, she calls it her largest extracurricular involvement. She works as a program assistant, helping set up for events, taking photos, buying groceries and doing whatever needs to be done.
“No matter the position, the students are stewards of the space,” Katz said. “The space itself breeds respect between people and those that come here.”
Autumn said it’s inescapable for the staff to become friends, given the hours and memories they spend together. To capture the connections, photos are constantly taken, and Autumn is in charge of compiling the scrapbook this year.
“It’s like doing set tasks with your very best friends,” Faith Padgett (C ’18) said of the work. “I feel privileged to do this with the community and people.”
Transferring to Penn, Padgett knew she wanted to work for KWH immediately and visited the house on her first day to ask for a job. In addition to making sure programs run smoothly, she works on the Letterpress, or the Robinson Press (a printing press), setting type and dipping her fingers in ink to create broadsides.
“Working on the Letterpress makes me so fulfilled and happy,” Faith said. “It makes my work as an artist feel validated. Earlier this school year, I met Ross Gay, this poet I came to know so well by reading his work, and I was able to hand him a broadside that I made.”
“Different writers need different things. It’s important to carve out time for yourself and to write. Between work and school, it’s easy to let that go,” Lowenthal said. “Community is important. That moment when you say, ‘I am a writer’ is key.”
Yet not all people visiting KWH are writers. Autumn, who studies urban studies, doesn’t consider herself one, and said that although some people may think KWH is "culty," there's great diversity among the members.
“We are actually incredibly different,” Autumn said. “But we are all looking for community and are just happy to talk about ideas.”
Another misconception about the house may be that it's there simply to promote one’s own writing agenda.
“Coming in, I had these narcissist, self–centered expectations for the space. I thought ‘I’m going to be writing here,'” Gabe Ojeda–Sague (C '16) said. “But it’s more about listening to others. Here is where you’ll get tools to do so.”
He certainly had to do so as an undergrad, where for work he did sound tech and recordings. Now as an administrative assistant, he is in charge of communications for the organization. Planning to study American literature in grad school, he decided that during the time in between, he would stay at KWH.
The cozy, homey atmosphere of the space is supposed to lend to this casual exchange of ideas. Lectures are banned in the house, Filreis said, and instead it’s a “I speak; you speak” environment. No perspective is too young or old, high or low culture. In the Fellows Program he has run for 18 years, Filreis leads students in studying the works of three profound authors before they come to visit the house for readings and conversations.
“You will have a freshman sit right next to a Pulitzer Prize winner at the dinner table,” Filreis said. “You meet so many talented artists that you start to think you can succeed too.”
And Penn artists do. Many of the speakers that come to campus are natives to Locust Walk. Even if they haven’t come back to speak yet, those who used to lounge in KWH often maintain that connection forever.
“That is the best part of the job—seeing people grow up and move on. It’s always happy,” Katz said. “The most important group is the students. This place is them.”