Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Girard College, a boarding school for orphans and other­wise under­privileged children, is located in a largely unattractive, grimy industrial district of Philadel­phia. Its location in the city’s north section does not conjure images of wealth or the Social Register, but its endowment marks it is as one of the richest boarding schools in the country. The story of Girard Col­lege and its extraordinary endowment began in 1831, when the famous financier Stephen Girard willed seven million dollars for the city of Philadelphia to found a school for orphan boys. A native of Bordeaux, Girard had left France for Philadelphia as a young man, and his generosity toward the city was, appar­ently, a gesture of gratitude for his own financial success.

In 1990 the school’s invest­ment portfolio was worth one hundred and sixty million dollars – not including the value of city-owned property whose leases and rents pro­vide income to support the school. This income and in­vestment dividends now underwrite the yearly expense of educating five hundred and thirty students at twenty-one thousand dollars per pupil.

It may surprise many, but Girard College is not really a college at all. The appellation is a carry-over from the mid­-nineteenth century, when the term “college” was used indiscriminately to describe any educational institution. Girard is an elementary and second­ary school for students be­tween the ages of six and eighteen. From its beginning the school was never solely for orphans in the precise sense of the term – children without parent’s. At the time, Pennsyl­vania law considered a father­less child to be an orphan, and most of the Girard students over the years have qualified in that category. In recent years, motherless children have been admitted as well, and today Girard accepts children whose parents are both alive but unable to adequately care for them. Stephen Girard’s will gave preference to Philadel­phia applicants, but there have always been many Girard students from other parts of Pennsylvania. Other states also have sent students in recent years, including New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Ohio, Arizona, and Nevada.

Because of the handsome bequest Girard’s will provided, Philadelphia’s city fathers did not hesitate to take responsibil­ity for establishing the school. As they do today, bonds and other securities provided the main source of income for the endowment. Stephen Girard also bequeathed the city valu­able real estate, and through­out the years it has played a large part in financing the college. Immense tracts of land in Schuylkill and Columbia counties, for example, turned out to be rich in anthracite deposits. The first mine opened in 1863, and by 1879 the operation was producing more than one and a half mil­lion tons of anthracite, ac­counting for twenty percent of all the coal mined in the south­ern region. In the decades following World War II, the anthracite mining industry declined sharply – and so did the college’s earnings. But in recent years there has been a comeback of sorts, particularly in the reprocessing of coal that is not otherwise marketable. Thanks to new technology, Girard College is now earning eight hundred thousand dol­lars a year from its coal fields.

Girard College has also profited from valuable Phila­delphia real estate left by its founder, including the crown jewel of his empire: the block bounded by Market, Chestnut, Eleventh, and Twelfth streets , in what is now center-city. Girard’s executors spent more than eight hundred thousand dollars in improving the prop­erty with residences and stores before turning over the block to the city. It still produces rental income for Girard Col­lege. The largest structure on the block is appropriately named the Stephen Girard Building, a thirteen-story office building which is mostly leased to law firms and private businesses. The board of direc­tors of city trusts, which man­ages the college’s endowment, maintains its offices in the building.

Originally, Stephen Girard planned to locate his school where the Girard Building now stands, but changed his mind after his friend and legal advisor, William J. Duane, pointed out that the down­town location was not neces­sarily an ideal selling for a school, particularly in that era when epidemic diseases were common. Stephen Girard knew pestilence first hand; he played a heroic role during the catastrophic yellow fever epi­demics of the 1790s. For his school Girard purchased forty­-five acres of farmland several miles north of the city limits, between the Schuylkill River and Ridge Pike, where Girard Avenue runs today. The area, annexed to the city in 1854, no longer appeared to be rural in the mid-nineteenth century, as the city’s row houses and fac­tories had begun sprawling northward. Despite the neigh­borhood’s heavy industrializa­tion, greenery flourishes today behind the walls surrounding the campus.

A large marble structure resembling a Greek temple dominates the campus, as it has since it was completed in the 1840s. Known today as Founder’s Hall, it housed the college’s classrooms and of­fices in the early days. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark not only for its historical association with Stephen Girard but for its architectural significance; as an example of Greek Revival-­style architecture, Founder’s Hall is magnificent. The story of Founder’s Hall is, in many ways, as extraordinary – and intriguing – as the College’s trust. Stephen Girard left two million dollars for its construc­tion, a huge sum for a building in those days. In 1832 college officials conducted an architec­tural competition that attracted many leading architects of the day. Nineteen of the compet­ing drawings have survived, and many of the designs were similar because Girard in­cluded specific instructions in his will for the dimensions of the building and the number of stories. He even specified the layout of the floor plans.

There shall be in each story four rooms, each room not less titan fifty feet square in the clear; the four rooms on each floor to occupy the whole space east and west on such floor or story, and the middle of the building north and south; so that in the north of the building, and in the south thereof, there may remain space of equal dimensions, for an entry or hall in each for stairs and landings.

Given all the other details hi will enumerated, it is sur­prising that Stephen Girard did not select an architectural style. Greek Revival, however, was popular at the time and was appropriate for the size of the building he had requested, as well as for the solemnity of the educational undertaking he had perceived.

The winning architect was Thomas Ustick Walter, best known for later designing the dome and the two wings of the United States Capitol in Wash­ington, D.C. At the time of the Girard College competition, Walter was twenty-nine, and the project only his third com­mission. Fortunately for the architect, he enjoyed the friendship of the influential banker Nicholas Biddle, who helped the project along. A wealthy financier and an old friend of Girard, Biddle partic­ularly admired Greek architec­ture and served as a judge on the competition committee. His views no doubt played a role in the panel’s decision to choose Walter’s design, although other well-known architects, among them Robert Haviland and William Strick­land, had also submitted clas­sical designs. Whatever Biddle’s influence, this should not discredit the choice of Walter. From an early age he had been recognized as a tal­ented and capable architect, and respected as an able administrator who was forever keeping an eye on costs.

Marble for Founder’s Hall proved to be a major expendi­ture. Although Stephen Girard had not requested marble in his will, directing – even in death – only that he wanted “the most durable materials,” marble satisfied Girard’s wishes. It was also a natural choice for the Greek Revival design. Thomas U. Walter needed plenty of it, however, given the size of the building, and he was able to obtain suitable marble at reasonable prices at nearby quarries in Chester and Montgomery counties.

The construction project was not easy. With the city’s Common Council and Select Council managing the budget and supervising the work, Walter had his hands full, especially after the financial panic of 1837. Until the eco­nomic crisis, Philadelphia had been selling units of Girard’s stock to finance the construc­tion, but when prices tumbled, city officials decided to retain the stock and, as a result, work on the college slowed. These financial straits brought hard­ships for workers as well, and while many were laid off, Walter managed to convince the city’s two councils to pro­vide some funding to keep the project progressing. Eventu­alJy the stock market re­bounded, and the structure was finally completed in 1847. Builders kept within the allotted two million dollar budget; together the final costs amounted to $1,933,832.78, which the building committee explained to the two councils in its final report of 1848. As the committee emphasized, it was doubtful that any more significant savings could have been made, given the size and quality of the structure that Girard had envisioned – and stipulated from the grave!

The only significant design disputes involved the portico and the “fancy” Corinthian columns that surrounded the edifice. Critics harshly pointed to Girard’s command that “needless ornament” be avoided. The portico and columns had been approved by the city councils, but Walter was severely criticized for his recommendation. He de­fended himself by reasoning that the portico was not merely decoration but neces­sary support for the upper part of the building. As for the columns, Walter claimed he selected the Corinthian over the plainer Doric and Ionic styles because, while more ornate, the Corinthian columns were actually cheaper due to their tapered design. Doric columns, he said, would have cost twice as much be­cause they required a uniform nine and a half feet in diame­ter. The Ionic column also had a thicker shaft than the Corin­thian, and it was expensive because it required a single block of marble. Walter con­cluded in his report that the Corinthian column, “although apparently the most adorned, is in fact the cheapest.”

The sheer magnificence of the completed building si­lenced its critics, and stands today as one of the major landmarks in American archi­tectural history. Only slightly smaller than the Lincoln Me­morial in Washington, D.C., Founder’s Hall has a similar sweep and soaring effect, but not the dramatic surrounding open space that makes the Lincoln Memorial appear so impressive. Even so, a visit to Founder’s Hall is a memorable experience. Founder’s Hal1 is one great expanse of marble­ – nearly fourteen thousand tons of it! – except for the impres­sive banisters that rise out of the three stories of staircases. The banisters were made of cast iron and knobbed on the top, a “decoration” to discour­age students from sliding down them. Founder’s Hall also houses an impressive collection of Stephen Girard’s fine and decorative arts, in­cluding paintings, furniture, silver, glass, and porcelain. Many of these rare treasures once decorated his home on Water Street near the shipping and financial districts where he made his fortune.

Founder’s Hall is, of course, just one of many buildings on the campus. Dormitories, for example, were being built adjacent to the main building during its construction. Over the years more dorms and modern classroom structures were built. The 1920s and 1930s witnessed a period of extensive construction at Girard, during which a new dining and service building, high school annex, junior school, chapel, and library were added.

The college’s educational mission has always been somewhat ambivalent, in large part because Girard’s views, as expressed in his will, were (and remain) ambiguous. He believed students should re­ceive a “sound education,” by studying such subjects as reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, science, and for­eign languages. However, the contradictory Girard also stip­ulated that he “would have them taught facts and things. rather than words or signs,” which has, throughout the history of the institution prompted numerous debates about Girard’s real intent. For supporters of vocational edu­cation, “facts and things” meant hands-on training for employment after graduation; on the other hand, proponents of the arts and sciences inter­preted the very same phrase to signify a rigorous academic program to prepare for college and careers in professions such as medicine.

During Girard College’s early years, academic aspira­tions ran high, no doubt due to the fervor inspired by the college’s first president, Alex­ander Dallas Bache, a highly regarded scientist and profes­sor at the University of Penn­sylvania. Hired during the chaotic construction phase, and before the admittance of students, Bache invested his time wisely by traveling throughout Europe in 1836 to learn more about the latest trends in education. On his return he prepared extensive reports for the city councils. Bache aimed for high stand­ards because he felt that was Girard’s wish. Anyone who had glanced at the will, Bache claimed, must have perceived that Girard wanted “no ordi­nary orphan asylum to be created with the immense fund which his liberality en­trusted to the authorities of the city of his adoption.” In Bache’s view, Girard “put himself in the place of the father of the orphan, and has determined that talent shall have all the opportunities for development, by education, within the reach of children the most favored by the cir­cumstances of their parents:’ Fueled by his beliefs, and drawing on his experiences in Europe, Alexander Dallas Bache laid out a vigorous aca­demic program.

Unfortunately, the councils were unimpressed, largely because many members were miffed at Bache for submitting an expense statement of $7,219.16 for his European sojourn, and a second invoice for $5,278.51 for books and educational equipment. Apparently Bache had traveled in a grand manner, and for coun­cil members it was far too grand. Eventually controversy quieted, but the ill will be­tween Bache and the councils festered. He resigned a few years later to assume the presi­dency of the newly created Central High School, which was committed to the aca­demic excellence Bache fiercely advocated. The entire episode was unfortunate for Girard College not merely because it lost a strong leader during its formative years, but because Bache’s alienation from the councils placed the academic advocates at a disadvantage to the vocationalists. Although the liberal arts have always been a part of Girard College’s curriculum, the vocational approach has dominated the school since its doors opened in 1848. Until recent years, very few graduates went on to institutions of higher education.

In its early years, Girard College emphasized training in manual trades, such as carpentry and masonry. As industry boomed, the school kept up with the times and began offering training in new fields, including electricity, printing, and automotive tech­nology, in up-to-date machine shops and laboratories on the campus. For years Girard had an extensive apprentice pro­gram, and some students even trained at shipyards in Chester during World War I. The ap­prentice program was created for all students, including those majoring in academic studies. Many of these college­-bound students completed their apprenticeships as assistant bookkeepers and clerical workers in nearby offices.

Today Girard is changing – and dramatically so. The voca­tional training program was recently abolished, and the college now emphasizes col­lege preparatory work and more solid concentration in academic areas. Of course, these changes at Girard reflect the greater changes taking place in American society. And Alexander Dallas Bache’s ideas seem more relevant than ever.

Probably the most dramatic change that has taken place in Girard over the years has been the composition of the student body. Once a school for only white, male orphans, today Girard is co-educational, and more than seventy percent of the students are of African­-American and Hispanic de­scent. Admittance was restricted for so many years because of a provision in Girard’s 1831 will: “As many poor white male orphans, between the age of six and ten years … shall be introduced into the college as soon as possi­ble …. ” The first minority male was accepted in 1968, and the first female in 1984. Although outside groups struggled to diversify the student body, the administration welcomed it in a sense, because the tradi­tional enrollment had plum­meted from an all-time high of more than seventeen hundred pupils in 1933 to less than half of that by the 1950s. The de­cline had less to do with the college than with dramatic increases in government sup­port for needy families after World War II, an era that ush­ered in more funding for So­cial Security and new welfare programs, which made it eas­ier for single parents to care for their children at home.

In the early 1970s, with enrollment hovering around four hundred, college officials were forced to consider two options: either to move the campus from its crime-ridden neighborhood to land the city owned in the more residential Byberry section of northeast Philadelphia, or to simply abandon Stephen Girard’s dream, close the college, and accept the premise that Girard no longer had a viable mis­sion. They decided to do nei­ther.

Despite the administration’s inaction, Girard College has bounced back dramatically in recent years. Enrollment has increased to more than five hundred students, and many more candidates have been placed on a waiting list. Girard’s new president, How­ard B. Maxwell, is an experi­enced academic administrator who received his doctorate from the University of Michi­gan. He is also a proud gradu­ate of Girard College.

Much like Alexander Dallas Bache, Howard B. Maxwell is an advocate.of a strong aca­demic program. He firmly believes Girard can play a role by inspiring minorities, and become something of an “ur­ban academy” for inner-city excellence. In one sense this is a notable change, but in many respects it has always been Girard College’s mission. If alive today, perhaps Stephen Girard would heartily accept the radical changes made when civil rights groups chal­lenged his will.

But it was not the school’s restrictions which preoccupied the financier and philanthro­pist as he drafted his will; it was the education of the dis­advantaged, the poor, and the downtrodden. Perhaps a letter written by an anonymous member of the graduating class of 1944, and published in the June issue of the Corinthian, the school newspaper, best pays tribute to the man whose dream has promised a bright future to those who have passed through the por­tals of Girard College.

Dear Stephen Girard:

Today we leave your school, Girard College, to meet the world, armed with a superior education. Your body yielded to age and time, but this school will ever remain a living monument to your wisdom and foresight. Your creation has lifted the faltering spirits of wid­owed mothers and given to this nation thousands of useful citi­zens. Our time has come to tender you our thanks, as the thousands before us have done.

We, the recipients of your munificence, are profoundly grate­ful but how can we adequately express our full gratitude to you? Words are but idle instruments when used to describe the somber sentiments. The words we halt­ingly select have not the warmth we feel.

We, the Class of June 1944, are reluctant to leave this, our home and school, for the passing school years have knit our hearts very close to Girard College. Your noble spirit permeates our minds and controls our actions. We shall strive to pattern our lives after yours, for in doing so they shall be well lived.

The raw, wide-eyed youngsters who entered Girard ten years ago have been molded by skillful, ministrative hands into sober, young men. The education pro­vided by you has dispelled forever the mists of uncertainty from our minds, making us independent of the thoughts of others and eager to face any situations that may beset us.

Had we not come to your school, how much there is that we would not have seen, heard, or felt? We would have been rele­gated, without being conscious of it, to dull, meaningless existence. We would not have been exposed to literature, art, and music, those creations of inspired man which lift the soul h1to the good life. The more we learn the more we know how much you have bequeathed us ….

Now the guiding hand is being removed, but it points the way to a bright future. The honors of distinction we may attain in this world are now foreshadowed by one we commonly share, the distinction of being Girardians.


For Further Reading

Beers, Paul. “Stephen Girard’s College: Home and Hope for Generations of Orphans.” Penn­sylvania. June 1989.

Cunningham, Ernest. Memories of Girard College. Philadelphia: Girard College, 1942.

Herrick, Chessman A. History of Girard College. Philadelphia: Girard College, 1927.

____. Stephen Girard, Founder. Philadelphia: Girard College, 1923.

Webster, Richard. Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the His­toric American Building Sur­vey. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.


Michael P. McCarthy received his bachelor of arts degree from Princeton University and his doctorate from Northwestern University. A specialist in urban history, he is a freelance historian who has written extensively on Philadelphia subjects. His article entitled “The Unhappy Tale of Building Philadelphia’s City Hall” appeared in the summer 1990 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage.