November 13: the building of the (half-) century
2012/11/13 § 2 Comments
The College was financed by part of the humongous bequest left by Stephen Girard (1750-1831), who was the Vanderbilt, Astor and Carnegie of the antebellum period rolled into one. After making a mint, several times over, in shipping and banking, Girard had the good taste to leave most of it to philanthropic uses (to the great consternation of his grumpy extended family). Two million dollars was left to build and run a college–a true college, not an almshouse–for poor white orphan boys. A lot was purchased, a competition was held, a winner was announced, ground was broken.
That was in 1833 when construction commenced on the project as designed by Thomas U. Walter (1804-87). Walter had apprenticed as a bricklayer under his father’s tutelage, then sought architectural training with William Strickland. Due to its scale, social significance and expense, Girard College made Walter a household name, and thus one of America’s first architect celebrities. The project was praised for its pure Grecian design, to be hewn of beautiful white marble. It remains the fullest expression of Greek architecture in the United States: one of the biggest buildings in the style, and the only one with a full peripteral colonnade. Largely built of brick vaults and bearing walls, its upper floors under the roof (above) reveal Walter’s sneaky uses of iron to knit the behemoth of a structure together beneath tons, and tons, and tons of West Chester marble–including the roofing tiles.
The building was praised on all counts, especially as a fine Greek temple of virtue indicative of the strength of the young Republic. At least, that was the case during the early years. The large project necessarily required a lengthy time frame to build, and across the next fourteen years the country changed. As the marble temple steadily rose from the ground in the northwest of Philadelphia, Andrew Jackson popularized plain speech and ridiculed the ostentatious excess of Whig politicians (many of whom populated Girard’s building committee) and fancy architecture. He also shut down the Second Bank of the US, gutting Philadelphia’s economic centrality; his later measures put the entire country into a financial tailspin that resulted in a multi-year depression starting in 1837. Construction on the College slowed down with everything else, and the once-proud beacon of philanthropy became a regrettable, outrageous expenditure. When it was finally complete in 1847 it was, by many accounts, woefully out of step: the Grecian style no longer shone with the promise of the young democracy; tight-fisted Philadelphians wondered why the sons of the indigent were treated to such luxury when hard-working republican children had no such institute devoted to their well-being. Girard College was a monument of the promise of abundance in 1833 Philadelphia, and the reminder of scarcity–of dollars and generosity of spirit–a decade and a half later.
Although the definition of “orphan” has changed since Girard’s day, his College continues to serve its purpose. Although maligned and even forcibly damaged in time (the volutes were knocked off of the capitals by some moron in the twentieth century), it remains a memorial to the generosity of one of America’s great philanthropists, a reminder of Philadelphia’s glory days as the country’s undisputed center of aesthetic and financial power in the antebellum period, and a testament to a period–sadly short-lived though it was–when such a spectacular gift to a municipality was not such a unique event, although certainly the scale of this one puts it in a special stratosphere. As the most expensive and expansive architectural enterprise in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is testament to the skills of one of America’s great architects, Thomas U. Walter, who would go on to do other important things not long after completing the great marble temple that honors Girard and his legacy.
Image: vaulted third-floor room, with iron skylight; Girard College (Clio’s)