While rushing down Locust Walk, the Kelly Writers House might be easy to miss. But it’s needed for everyone on campus—not just writers.
It sits covered by a veil of its own foliage. Its understated design is in stark contrast to that of its hyper–modern neighbor, Perry World House and the loud frat houses next door. Without the gold letters etched into the dark green sign spelling out “THE KELLY WRITERS HOUSE,” the average passerby might not even notice its very existence. The quaint cottage that is the Kelly Writers House stands meekly across from the ever bustling 1920 Commons, but those who have not been lucky enough to discover this hidden gem are missing out on one of the most unique and inviting places on campus.
Quite literally a home, with a kitchen and bathroom (as any surprised restroom visitor might have discovered), the Kelly Writers House was the former residence of the University chaplain. After he retired in 1994, the home was repurposed as Kelly Writers House in order to create a communal space dedicated to the collaborative study, creation, and appreciation of literature. It was intended to be a space for creativity on campus and a respite from the constant stress of preprofessionalism. Rather than focusing on networking or resume–building, KWH emerged as a haven of community and hands–on experience. Twenty–eight years later, KWH has grown from a group of 20 volunteers to over 90 active volunteers and staff members.
Everyone’s path to 3805 Locust Walk is different. Some are recruited out of high school, while others accidentally end up falling in love with the overstuffed couches and mismatched furniture that makes the Kelly Writers House a home.
Although it is primarily a space for creatives, the misconception that KWH is only a place for English majors is far from the truth. Undergraduate staff member Joan Bamgboye (W '25) notes, “Obviously, English majors are here, but so is everybody else. There are nurses, Wharton students, and everybody in between. It's really a space for everybody to be honest.”
Joan herself ended up working at KWH somewhat serendipitously, after receiving an email from the program coordinator at KWH offering a work study position. Joan didn’t think much of the position beyond a job. “I like books, and it'd be nice to have something outside of [Wharton], so I just sent in my resume and cover letter and that was really it,” she says. But she was pleasantly surprised to find that KWH provided more than just work–study hours, but rather a new perspective of Penn. As a Wharton student, Joan has found that KWH has offered a space that allows her to interact with people outside of the preprofessional and business–focused microcosm of Wharton.
Joan says, “Without Kelly Writers House, I feel like I wouldn't have met like a bunch of other Penn students that are in other fields, like Cognitive Neuroscience or whatever. It's nice to have a place where people just talk about their interests.” For Joan, her last two years working at KWH have provided her with a unique sense of community that is difficult to find elsewhere on campus. “[It’s easy] to think of it as a second home. Especially with all the pictures around, it just feels like you know, a family” Joan explains.
People enter KWH with all different writing backgrounds, from future novelists to the casual reader. Yet whatever their experiences may be, KWH provides a space for students to embrace their creativity. House Director Jessica Lowenthal (MFA ‘07) had a more intentional entrance. “I came to Penn in 2001 as a graduate student and was studying modern and contemporary poetry. So, the Writers House was a place for me that was a refuge. As a student, it was a place to meet poets, and talk to other students about non curricular life in a non curricular setting. The house was another place for me on campus that was familiar and warm and welcoming,” Lowenthal explains.
This “warm and welcoming” atmosphere has made the Writers House a home to a wide range of communities and events. There are the events that you’d expect a writers house to include, like poetry slams, readings, and Q&As with favorite authors, but KWH offers more than just poetry and literature. Joan notes that her favorite aspects of KWH are “a bunch of random things, like a Knitting Club, and resources that anybody can use, like the craft cabinet or communal kitchen (as long as you wash your dishes). It's become a place for people to hang out, or for some, to take a nap on the bean bag upstairs.”
Lowenthal has seen KWH expand over the last 20 years. Her wealth of experience has given her countless wonderful memories about the space, but one sticks out to her in particular. A student of hers decided to curate an art show using piano rolls, long textured pieces of paper fed into a player piano to autonomously produce music. “Rather than just hanging the rolls on the wall, she wanted to be hyper collaborative, hyper involved, and she happened to locate a piano player and get it delivered to the house,” Lowenthal remembers.
Moving the gigantic piano into the house would put grey hairs on even the most seasoned director’s heads, but the show–and the lengths the House went through to make this artistic vision possible—is exactly what KWH is all about. Lowenthal explains that no matter your creative endeavor, KWH always works to “...help you find the right set of resources; which might include funding, or which might just be somebody with a hammer.”
Although she’s been involved in the space for over two decades, Lowenthal is “always, always surprised every year by the new ideas,” she says. “I think that's the nature of communal creative space. There are always new ideas and that's why this job remains fantastic.” Even if you don’t yet call yourself creative or a writer, KWH is a space for anyone to escape from the preprofessionalism of Penn’s campus. All you need is curiosity to discover what the house can offer you.
Whether it's free Tazo Tea, the annual Chili Cook Off, or even just the ambiance, find an excuse to get yourself into the front door.