University of Pennsylvania

On the Western Skyline

Quick Facts: 

Charles Custis Harrison served as provost from 1894-1910, a roles that equates to the modern president.

Penn’s history has been molded by many capable hands, but our physical presence—our contribution to the Philadelphia skyline—is largely attributable to an oft-overshadowed provost, Charles Custis Harrison.

Harrison—founder of the Franklin Sugar Refinery, one of the largest refineries in the world at the turn of the century—served as Trustee from 1876 until his death in 1929, and served as Provost from 1894-1910. He brought not only business acumen to his role at Penn, but also a host of wealthy industrialist contacts and political leaders.

Calling in favors and employing tactics mastered while marketing sugar, Harrison ushered in a golden age of growth for Penn. Franklin Field, The Quad, Houston Hall, John Morgan Building, Towne Building, and Penn Museum are just a few of the iconic structures credited to Harrison. During his tenure and as a direct result of his fundraising prowess, a total of 49 buildings were added to the campus. As a testament to the public’s opinion of Penn’s growth under Harrison, a 1907 cartoon in the Punchbowl showed the Provost as Santa Claus, surrounded by buildings, chairs, and degrees, each outfitted with a gift tag.

Today, the University of Pennsylvania continues to rely on gifts from generous donors to build upon the foundation laid by Harrison and his peers. Founded in 1995, The Charles Custis Harrison Society honors those who have named Penn as a beneficiary of a will, living trust, retirement plan, or life insurance policy, or have set up a life income gift that benefits Penn in the future.

At this year’s annual Harrison Society Luncheon held on April 20, members were joined by University Architect, David Hollenberg, for a campus tour highlighting the Harrison-era icons that stand as a testament to his generosity and leadership.

To learn more about The Harrison Society click here.