Friday, midnight. The sounds of drunken classmates at parties along Spruce seep into the lounge, but these Penn students wouldn’t consider it. Xbox, sci–fi television shows and Settlers of Catan are more their style, and their college house lounge is at the heart of weekend nightlife. One of them says with a matter–of–fact shrug, “All my friends are here.”
Across from Allegro at 40th and Spruce, there is a nondescript, architecturally unimpressive four–floor brick building. Most don’t give it a second thought. Some know it is a college house. Fewer know that it is Van Pelt Manor, one of two buildings that make up Gregory College House. Even fewer live within it and have come face–to–face with what’s inside: one of the smallest, closest communities at Penn.
It’s utterly under the radar, but diehard Gregorians, as they’re called, wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not a campus staple and its tight–knit, intimate culture is certainly not for everyone, but some residents fall in love with the familial warmth within its walls. They’ll spend two, three or even four years of their college experience dwelling in Gregory, intentionally choosing to foster their small social circle within the house, eschewing the overwhelming intensity of the greater university lifestyle.
As thousands of Penn students walk by Van Pelt Manor on their way to class (or to the other, scarier Van Pelt), they unknowingly pass the small but sturdy niche of Gregorian “lifers,” cut off but content.
College senior Melissa Sosa is one of these longtime Gregorians, now living in the house—and working behind its main desk—for her fourth year. In a competitive school where it’s easy to feel lost, Melissa found her best friends in Gregory, and they never left. “Penn’s a really big place, and coming in as a freshman I was kind of intimidated by that,” admits Melissa, who consciously focused on socializing and pursuing her extracurricular interests within the house rather than without.
“We’re kind of the misfits on campus,” notes Melissa, whose main activity at Penn is serving as a House Manager for Gregory. “I’m weird. My roommate’s weird. We’re all weird together.”
Even though Gregory loses residents from each grade as they get older—like every college house—the house’s current seniors have almost all lived there since freshman year, which is a testament to its high retention rate. The top two floors of both buildings are freshman–only, while the bottom two floors are mixed upperclassmen. Half of the house’s approximately 260 residents are freshmen.
“If you can’t find your niche anywhere else, you’ll probably find it here,” Melissa says with pride as two girls swipe in, waving to her. One of them is her roommate, Lucero, who stares in jealousy at Melissa’s full box of waffle fries. In an act of mind–boggling generosity, Melissa silently hands her entire food supply to her friend to bring into the lounge. Where many Penn students would hoard every fry like an OCR offer, Melissa gives them all away, commenting with a shrug: “There’s lots of free food here.”
Like most college houses, Gregory does pride itself on free food and planned social events, although its self–described “overstuffed calendar” provides well over 20 opportunities a week. Many of these, such as the weekly BYOM (bring your own mug—“say it, don’t spell it”) in which students get free hot chocolate, cider, cookies and baked goods, make a fry–donating gesture seem run of the mill.
Gregory is also home to the Film Culture Program, which hosts regular movie screenings and discussions for half a credit or for fun. “The students who invest in the program broaden their horizons, see works they’ve always heard about, and perhaps some classics that had never been on their radar,” explains Christopher Donovan, the Gregory house dean who helped develop the program over a decade ago. “I think even the Gregorians who aren’t particularly cinema–enamored, and just pop in for the occasional screening, recognize the atmosphere of academic and cultural exploration as representative of this place.”
The Film Culture Program, as well as the guaranteed single rooms, attracted College senior Amanda Ruffner to Gregory as she selected her freshman year home. Gregory was not Amanda’s first choice of housing. Looking back, she realizes that spots in the house must have been significantly less competitive than those in the Quad, for example. She notes frankly, “The fact that I ranked it at all made me get it.”
But the advertised tight–knit camaraderie failed to meet freshman dorm expectations for Amanda. While certain types of students fell in love with the social vibes that the house community had to offer and chose to focus their residential and social life on Gregory for the rest of Penn, Amanda found it “solitary.”
Amanda confesses she spent most of her first semester sleeping in Hill, where her PennQuest friends dwelled (and where her classes were nearby). “That was a real, open–door freshman hall experience,” she says. While certain Gregorians chose to inhabit the lounges, the actual room doors remained shut, making Amanda feel “like an outsider” relative to the openness of Hill (According to Melissa Sosa, they stay closed “mostly because our doors are really heavy and they don’t give us door stops”).
Second semester of freshman year, Amanda and her Hill friends took to sleeping in Gregory, due to its proximity to the western end of campus, where sororities were. Still, she has no idea whether her freshman year roommates ended up staying in Gregory or living elsewhere. “That’s just a testament to how closed–door it really was,” she says. “We were friendly, but I hadn’t even thought about that until you brought that up.”
As for the people themselves, Amanda muses, “We could have had things in common, but I didn’t really give it a chance. It’s not welcoming to everyone...maybe it would have been better as an upperclassman.”
“I think many residents come to believe this place is a true home for them,” says Donovan, who is also a cinema studies professor. “Often, students whose top priority is to be immersed in the major social currents at Penn—who invest deeply in the fraternity and sorority scene or who show up in the 34th Street gossip columns—may not find Gregory their ideal place.”
“We certainly have our share of partiers, but the kind of students who prefer to spend Halloween weekend hanging out, baking and watching scary movies with their friends often find this a warm environment,” he adds.
It’s true that those who choose to invest their social lives within the walls of Gregory tend not to branch out to Greek life and other aspects of these “major social currents,” but it suits Melissa and her friends just fine. “It’s really hard to make friends outside of Gregory,” she says. “My roommates—those four people you saw—you can go into the lounge at any given time and find one or two or all of us playing video games, talking or creating a ruckus.”
“I have acquaintances outside, but they’re not the people I share my life with,” she continues, noting that finding a smaller “family” at her “home away from home” kept her grounded after coming to Penn from Texas.
“If I wanna make a difference at Penn, working on a smaller scale is probably more effective than trying to be student body president or something like that,” she theorizes. “Big associations are intimidating. I can deal with 200–and–something, not the whole senior class.”
Though Melissa is graduating in May, she is looking forward to Van Pelt Manor’s major renovation this summer, after Class of 1925—the other of the two Gregory buildings—redid its rooms (adding key card access, overhead lighting and accent walls), lounges, kitchens and the basement this past summer. The current Van Pelt basement—not Rosengarten, of course—is abandoned and creepy, according to Melissa.
While it’s “kind of a shithole,” she thinks Gregory’s reputation is as irrelevant as it is unfair. “I have an acquaintance who found out I live here, and he always gives me shit,” she recalls. “And I’m like, 'Okay, you lived in the Quad for two years. Don’t even give me that.'”
Gregory may have a bad reputation as forgettable or antisocial (or no reputation at all), but to its diehard residents, it’s anything but. “You can hear the screams right now,” says Melissa. “Like, they’re watching ‘Teen Wolf.’” Sure enough, inside the lounge, 10 or so Gregorians are huddled around the television, including one alumnus who still hangs out in the house postgrad. “That says it all,” his friend pipes up.
Jamilah Steele, the AlliedBarton security guard stationed in the Van Pelt building, splits her time between Gregory and Rodin and corroborates Melissa’s sentiments. “I like it,” she says. “They’re friendlier here. It’s very family–oriented.”
Christopher Donovan doubts he would have stayed on as House Dean for as long somewhere like the Quad. Gregory and its resident retention provides “an ideal environment for an educator.” He explains, “In the classroom, I sometimes get to work with students for more than one semester, but there’s nothing like what Gregory offers.”
They’re not an official club on campus, but a tight–knit collection of students makes Gregory the heart of their college experience—and they exist under most of Penn’s radar. “We’re aware of our appearance, but give us a chance,” says Melissa Sosa before darting off to catch the end of “Teen Wolf.” “We might be a little awkward, but we’re pretty cool.”
Ben Lerner is a junior from Hastings–on–Hudson, NY. He is an English major, and Editor–in–Chief of Under the Button.