A Clear Trajectory for the Wistar Institute

On a rainy Friday afternoon in September 2011, The Wistar Institute celebrated a landmark occasion. Crowded inside the atrium of Wistar’s historic 1894 building, away from the torrent outside, the Institute made officially public its intent to build a new, seven-story, 89,700-square-foot research tower and renovate significant portions of its existing research complex.

Wistar building

The project, estimated to cost more than $100 million, is designed to expand Wistar cancer and vaccine research capabilities, and provide a bold new presence for the Institute.  

Wistar faculty and staff proudly lined the railings along the second and third floor, watching the proceedings. Below them, amid the tightly packed crowd of trustees, donors, construction managers, visiting dignitaries, news cameras, invited guests, and fellow employees, Wistar President and CEO Russel E. Kaufman, M.D., mounted the atrium’s classic iron staircase and made his remarks. 

“In 2014, University City will have a new profile. Where there is now a courtyard along Spruce Street, there will rise a gleaming seven-story research tower,” said Kaufman. “The new building will comprise five floors of state-of-the-art research labs designed in an open floor plan that supports and encourages scientific collaboration. Along with the new construction come upgrades and renovations across the entire Institute.”  

The groundbreaking also saw the public unveiling of a five-year, $35 million capital campaign, Building Wistar, Changing the World. Twenty-five million dollars of the campaign will go toward the research tower, while the administration has slated the remaining $10 million for recruiting new faculty members to expand the Institute’s research programs in emerging areas of science. 

“We have moved past the era where individual scientists, working alone or in small groups, are content with the simple act of discovery,” Kaufman explained to Focus. “Now we have embraced a ‘team’ approach where groups of laboratories — often with different specialties and scientific perspectives — make discoveries and then develop those discoveries much further than in the past, hoping to learn whether they have therapeutic value.” 

“We are not just building a new tower,” Kaufman said, “We are building an entirely new Wistar, one better equipped to link basic science to medical practice.”

According to Kaufman, the research tower is a manifestation of Wistar’s core values. The building is designed to inspire both the scientists who work in its laboratories and the surrounding community. The new research spaces will be modular and mobile, endlessly reconfigurable to meet whatever needs arise. In addition, the project’s design will tie the Institute together physically, with the research tower acting as a connecting hub that will allow access between the Institute’s original 1894 building and the Cancer Research Building (CRB), built in 1975. “Laboratories that are in close proximity to each other are more likely to collaborate and publish research together,” Kaufman said.  

The new building also represents a new public face for the Institute. The delivery gate and security booth that currently mark Wistar’s Spruce Street entrance will be replaced with a sleek glass entryway leading up to a new sky-lit atrium, 200-seat auditorium, and public meeting spaces where scientists can gather and exchange ideas, and Wistar can continue its proud tradition of public education.  

Shovel in hand, Kaufman and invited dignitaries representing the City of Philadelphia, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, “broke ground” in a tub of soil, an improvisation made necessary by the rainstorm. And, while such symbolic acts are common at groundbreaking events, the palpable feeling in the room was that this particular groundbreaking was anything but common. The new research tower is a redefining moment for the Institute.   

Up or Out?  

Since the late 1990s, Wistar has struggled with the existential question of how to remain an effective, independent biomedical research facility
while constrained within its narrow wedge of property on the corner of Spruce and 36th Streets.   “There was a growing sense that our aging infrastructure, combined with our lack of space, would hamper our competitiveness over time,” said Elizabeth O’Brien, Wistar’s vice president for legal and external affairs. “So the Wistar leadership, with the blessing and guidance of our Board of Trustees, began researching the Institute’s options.” In 2005, the Institute commissioned Ballinger, a Philadelphia-based architecture and engineering firm, to conduct a comprehensive technical survey of the entire Wistar complex. This survey confirmed that the 1894 building was in exceptional shape despite its age, while the Cancer Research Building and animal facility inadequately met the Institute’s current research needs and required substantial upgrades.

Armed with this information, the Institute painstakingly explored options for addressing the complex’s shortcomings. These options included building on then-vacant property near the Schulykill Expressway (which would have necessitated constructing a new access road from I-76) to rehabilitating a former factory across the river from University City. “We looked at places where we might move, in and around Philadelphia, and carefully weighed the pros and cons,” Kaufman explained. “But, fundamentally, we knew that, whatever the plan, we needed to retain our own identity; to maintain our own traditions, history and culture.”  

Another idea proposed by a private developer was to demolish the entire Cancer Research Building and construct, on the existing site, a new facility large enough to meet the Institute’s needs and provide leased space for incubator companies. The main drawback of this plan was the challenge of relocating virtually all of the Institute’s operations during the construction. However, the notion of building “on location” took hold and eventually the Institute concluded that it could address most of its needs by demolishing the existing animal facility, constructing a research tower in its place and renovating a portion of the Cancer Research Building to house its vivarium.

“We realized that we really have a solid infrastructure here in our historic home, and there is something to be said for the intangible benefits of remaining here,” Kaufman said. “This is about our identity and about retaining our pride of place. We are creating a better, more productive environment right here in University City.”  

Funding and Support 

In 2009, with schematic design and feasibility studies underway, the last question centered on how to pay for the project. With all reasonable estimates pointing toward a $100 million price  tag for both the new building and revitalizing Wistar’s existing complex, financing the construction became a major focus for Wistar leadership.  Wistar’s board and administration, advised by outside financial consultants, determined that a fourth of this funding would come from the capital campaign, which Robert A. Fox, Wistar patron and board member, generously volunteered to lead. To date, the campaign has already surpassed the halfway mark, with $18.6 million committed during a yearlong “quiet phase.” This summer, an additional $18 million came from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, an award set in motion by former Governor Ed Rendell and approved by his successor Governor Tom Corbett.  

Wistar’s advisors recommended financing the remaining project costs through a bond issue, by taking on debt.

Unfortunately, the Deeds of Trust under which General Isaac Wistar endowed the Institute, in the late 1800s specifically limited its ability to take on debt. Wistar would need to seek approval of the Philadelphia Orphan’s Court, the judicial body responsible for overseeing trusts and estates, to consummate a major borrowing. With the strong support of Isaac Wistar’s descendants and other contingent beneficiaries under the trusts, the Institute petitioned the court to permit it to borrow $55-60 million to finance the planned project. 

“Without this ability to borrow, Wistar was in danger of descending into obscurity,” O’Brien said. “Our founder could not have foreseen in 1894 what it would take today to remain current and relevant to scientific investigation.” 

In June 2011, the Orphan’s Court rendered its verdict, approving modifications to the Deeds of Trust that allow Wistar to finance its debt, paving the way for the groundbreaking. 

Renderings of the interior of the new Wistar Institute.

The Building of a Lifetime, The Challenges of Today.  

Even before the groundbreaking, the construction management firm in charge of the project, L.F. Driscoll Co., LLC, began so-called “enabling” projects. As the name suggests, these projects set the stage for demolition and construction. Laboratories along the ground floor of the 1894 building, for example, were moved and the area gutted to make way for the temporary home of the Institute’s shipping and receiving department, ensuring the unabated flow of supplies to laboratories during construction.  

“This will be difficult, and I am incredibly proud of Wistar’s faculty and staff for the sacrifices they are making to enable the construction of our new research tower,” Kaufman said. “As anyone who has ever done remodeling will know, it is difficult to live in a home under renovation.” 

According to Kaufman, internal communications will be key to helping Wistar employees cope with construction. Already, the entire Institute receives weekly email construction updates that detail everything from which stairwells are closed to when and
how long a given spate of noisy demolition will last. Video update monitors have been added to the atrium of the 1894 building and the employee pavilion to remind employees of current construction schedules.  

“We want to help people manage the stress of construction as well as possible,” Kaufman said. “You can handle the occasional bout of jackhammering if you know that it is first, necessary, and second, scheduled only to last a particular length of time.” 

Of course, even bigger changes are to come. The vivarium, a four-story structure attached to the CRB and at the edge of the current courtyard, will be entirely demolished. Already, Wistar has retrofitted the University of Pennsylvania’s old Kaplan Laboratory, a building that had been “mothballed” in anticipation of future demolition, to serve as a temporary vivarium. By the end of construction, the vivarium will return to Wistar’s complex in a new home on the ground floor of the CRB. Other vital research components, such as the Molecular Screening Facility, will move temporarily to leased space in buildings that are part of Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, along with Wistar’s entire Immunology Program. 

“As far as I am concerned, the hardest part is done already,” Kaufman said. “Over the last decade, we worked to create a plan for expansion, raise community support, and secure fundraising.”

“We did all of that, and we can say so proudly.” 

“Now we just have to build it.”