Lasting Contribution to Campus Article by: Braden Kelner
For Mary Keefe WG81, the opportunity for her architecture firm to design the Academic Research Building represented a chance to create an impactful campus fixture for students and faculty.
The new Academic Research Building at 37th and Spruce streets promises to foster new ideas, innovations, and collaborations at Wharton. Open this fall, the building touts a range of academic and research spaces, and is home to the School’s statistics and data science department, Wharton Customer Analytics, and AI for Business. Among its features, the building is home to several flexible classrooms designed for project-based and collaborative learning, state-of-the-art group study rooms, and a skylit atrium with a living plant wall.
Behind the vision for the building is MGA Partners, an architecture firm that designed the new space and is led in part by alumna Mary Keefe WG81. Wharton Magazine caught up with Keefe to talk about the building, her Philadelphia firm, and her family’s multigenerational connection to Wharton.
Wharton Magazine: Congratulations on the completion of the new Academic Research Building at Wharton. What was it like working on the building as an alumna of the school?
Mary Keefe: Like all of us, I came to Wharton excited for new ideas and bright prospects. My experience at the School was embodied in the places where I studied, collaborated with classmates, and formed a future. Arriving on campus in 1979, I felt the architecturally progressive character of Vance Hall expressed my hopes for the vitality of Wharton’s mission. Decades later, as our architecture firm was selected to design the new Academic Research Building, I was thrilled to recall my first encounter with the School and imagined how our studio could contribute just as powerfully to the legacy moments that represent the Wharton experience to all of us. How lucky I am to be able to complete the circle and articulate that sense of opportunity with our design, which sits just yards away from where I attended my new student welcome reception at Vance Hall so many years ago.
“While I’m not a designer by nature, I was attracted to the idea of applying the skill set I learned at Wharton to build an architecture firm in Philadelphia.”
Regarding the Academic Research Building itself, it is an honor to build at Penn, where there is over a century of fine architecture that has been curated carefully within an urban landscape and that, together, forms a unified, memorable campus. Our building attempts to achieve a resonance within this context, artfully defining its present moment at the landmark intersection of 37th Street and Woodland Walk. Inside, we worked extensively with Wharton’s senior administration to craft advanced learning and research spaces, as well as to create inviting meeting spaces at the perimeter of the building that encourages students to collaborate outside of formal settings. I hope everyone experiences this as a legacy contribution to our campus, creating fond memories and associations for students and faculty for generations to come.
WM: Your experience as a Wharton graduate focused on architecture is somewhat unique. How did you become interested in this field?
MK: My family’s background is in architecture and engineering, as my father led a prominent architecture firm on Newbury Street in Boston, just blocks from the Public Garden. Coming of age mid-century, I was immersed in environments that embraced the city’s history, and I knew that this was my legacy, too. While I’m not a designer by nature, I was attracted to the idea of applying the skill set I learned at Wharton to build an architecture firm in Philadelphia. Design is exciting, creative, and essential to our culture. Good architecture speaks to everyone — I wanted to be part of that.
I had the opportunity to co-found MGA Partners when my husband, Dan Kelley, and two of his colleagues assembled the firm in the early ’90s. These three men welcomed me as a Wharton MBA and woman into the practice — so there was an exciting experimental aspect to our collaboration. I was motivated by the potential to impact MGA’s creative aspirations, both through my familial experience with the world of quality institutional architecture and my Wharton perspective. I was uniquely positioned to mediate the culture of an architectural design studio with the hard practicalities of running a profitable business.
WM: Following your time at the School, you stayed in Philadelphia and are a board member of the Wharton Club of Philadelphia. How has your involvement in the club impacted you over the years?
MK: It seems to me that Philadelphia influences how Wharton sees the world. The context of Philadelphia — as an original colonial city planned in the Enlightenment, a setting for new ideas that united people, having seen riches and decline, having absorbed the diversity of immigration — plants it firmly in the broad American experience. Professors live here, our home campus is here, and students from all over the world come to study and live here — and this legacy cannot help but engage them.
As alums, life takes us around the country and the world. The Wharton Global Clubs Network is a remarkable resource. My involvement in the Wharton Club of Philadelphia over the years has brought me enduring friendships, rewarding professional associations, and introductions to new ideas. Being the “home” club among all Wharton Clubs, it feels like ours is a special stewardship in fostering the ties that bind us together through Wharton and Penn to a unique experience.
WM: Wharton runs deep within your family. One of your daughters, Martha Kelley WG14, is also an alumna, overseeing real estate investments at Goldman Sachs in the Northeast. As professionals in complementary spaces, how have you both benefited from each other’s expertise?
MK: As entrepreneurs with a family business, it was natural that nightly dinners involved discussions about the studio — from history and high art to the very complex difficulties of bringing a building out of the ground and managing budgets and exigencies. I think that Martha saw the very real value and satisfaction of being immersed in the tangible nature of our work, and I know that she enjoys the idea of continuing the legacy of our family as she invests. For example, several years ago, Martha and Dan presented together at a national design conference in New York City about a wonderful generational confluence in San Francisco: Our firm previously masterplanned and designed Yerba Buena Gardens, a major urban park in the SoMa district that opened in the ’90s. Now, 30 years later, Martha is developing a new signature mixed-use tower in the adjacent Transbay district, just several blocks away.
WM: Your firm is a certified women-owned business by the Women’s Business Enterprise Council, and you are an advisory board member of Penn Women In Design. As an inspirational woman in your field, who are some of the women, likewise, who have most impacted your career?
MK: Like other STEM fields, architecture was historically a male-oriented profession, though that has certainly changed in the past two decades. During that time, I can safely say that 50 percent of our staff have been women. Honestly, I had no reference for women MBAs or business leaders in the realm of architecture or construction as I entered this field, so I think of the issue a bit differently.
I’m interested in how individuals are shaped by time, place, and culture, so I’m working with faculty and students at Penn to study generational influences on women and their lives in design. My own inspiration came from the idealism of the 1960s when I came of age. We were optimistic about building a better world, and as we built MGA Partners, these are values I shared with my partners. We saw architecture as an art and believed that it could enrich people’s lives.
I have younger women partners who are transitioning to lead MGA Partners in the future. Amy Stein and Katie Broh GAR96 have worked side by side with us for 25 years, so there is a lot of depth and trust in our collaboration. They’ve shaped much of our portfolio, and they embrace the myriad challenges impacting studios today, from sustainable design to new building technologies to new patterns of work.