Originally, the College was to be built in what is today the downtown block surrounded by 11th, 12th, Chestnut and Market Streets, a property Girard purchased from John Dunlap in 1807 for $101,820.  A few months before Girard died he had purchased the Peel Hall farm and mansion from Richard Parker.  On June 6, 1831, Girard paid William Parker $35,000 for the forty-five acre farm located on Ridge Road in Penn Township, then in suburban Philadelphia.  By codicil to his will he changed the location for his school to the Peel Hall farm.  William Duane, his lawyer, indicated the change was made because Girard preferred that the College be built outside the congested city. Peel Hall was built by Oswald Peel in 1742 on property that had belonged to Richard Penn.  The mansion stood about where Founder’s Hall is today. [1] It was burned during the Revolution to prevent the British from occupying it, and in 1779 the ruins and property were purchased by Owen Biddle, who sold it to Parker. [2]

            Girard died on December 26, 1831 and to initiate the provisions of his Will (recorded on December 31, 1831 in Philadelphia Will Book 10, page 190) the City Council selected, on February 11, 1833, an eighteen-member Board of Directors to manage the College.  A separate Building Committee was appointed on March 21, 1833.  Nicholas Biddle, President of the Second Bank of the United States, was selected president of both the Board and the Building Committee.  This awkward arrangement of dual responsibilities lasted until 1869, when the State changed the City Charter and established the Directors of City Trusts, with complete authority to control the Trust and the College.[3]     

            Girard's Will stipulated that the College, consisting of a main building and four out-buildings,  be constructed "with the most durable materials, and in a most permanent way, avoiding needless ornament, and attending chiefly to the strength, convenience, and neatness of the whole."  He describe in detail the construction features and dimensions of the main building and its rooms.  He directed that it have four rooms, each 50 feet by 50 feet, on each floor and that all the rooms contain arched ceilings. On June 14, 1832, the City Council advertised for architects to submit design and construction plans depicting their concept of the description Girard wrote in the Will.  Appreciating  the two million dollar financial scope of the job,  at least twenty five architects competed  including some of the countries best known architects: namely, George and William Strickland, J. Stewart, John Skirving, Town and Dakin, Chaumes, Clapham, W.R.Crisp, Charles Egelmann, Haviland, Higham & Wetherall, Isaac Holden, John Kutts, Richard Lane, James Newman, Isaiah Rogers, William Rodrigue, Edward Shaw, and Thomas U. Walter.[4]  More than 100 drawings by 19 designers[5] survive today and many were placed on exhibit during the 1998 celebration of the 150th anniversary of the opening of Girard College.

            Thomas U. Walter was chosen to be the architect, but his original designs were not the ones used to construct the College.  Those plans proposed porticoes approached by large flights of steps in the front and rear of the building.   Nicholas Biddle  influenced the redesign of the Main Building to include surrounding columns.  The building committee claimed that they were necessary to support the weight of the roof.  Other designers disagreed and alleged that the column concept was intended to be a memorial to Nicholas Biddle's contribution to the classic arts.  On April 18, 1833 The Joint Committee on Constructing the College agreed to set aside the original Thomas U. Walter plans and have him redesign the Main Building with a roof high portico on all sides “After the manner of a Greek temple.”. [6] 

            Biddle had visited Greece and was so impressed with their architecture that it influenced most of his ventures. Before Girard College was built, Biddle influenced the Grecian design of the Bank of United States, and he applied his influence to insist that Walter design Girard College to be the "magnificent marble peristyle Grecian temple and four smaller temples". [7]  Others have described the building as "Grecian Corinthian from the monument of Lysicratus or Lantern of Demosthenes, at Athens."   The redesigned main building, standing today as Founder's Hall, is not what Girard intended. "Girard was a great admirer of the habits, customs and manners of the Society of Friends, their frugality, industry and temperance, the plainness of their public and private buildings, their strength, convenience and neatness, and complete adaptation to the uses for which they were intended, combined with a practical economy in their construction."  [8]

            Walter's Main Building, magnificent in design and proportion, with its spacious surrounding colonnade of thirty-four Corinthian columns, has been called "the most perfect Greek Temple in existence."  It is similar to the Madeleine Church in Paris, France.  “With the sole exception of the United States Capitol, (which burned once and was rebuilt several times in the six decades from 1792 to 1950) Girard College was the most expensive building in America.” [9]

            Walter was the son of a bricklayer.  When he designed Girard College he was only 29 years old and already a Professor at the Franklin Institute.   He was the architect for many of the buildings in Bucknell University.  He designed the reconstruction of Biddle's home, Andalusia, that also looks like a Greek temple.  In 1861, he replaced Robert Mills as the United States government architect and while in that position, he designed the dome and wings of the nation’s Capitol building, completed in 1863.  He and John McArthur Jr. were the architects for the Philadelphia City Hall.

            The final plans for the College were approved by  Council on April 29, 1833, and ground breaking occurred on May 6, 1833.   The corner stone of the Main Building was laid on July 4, 1833. Nicholas Biddle addressed the dignitaries present to witness the cornerstone placement.     "From the time that stone reached the earth, the name Girard was beyond oblivion.  He has now taken his rank among the great benefactors of mankind."  Biddle concluded with the following: "In the name of Stephen Girard we dedicate the College to charity, education, morals, and Country."  Encased in the cornerstone are the Will, coins, a $5 and $10 note with Stephen Girard's signature, a newspaper of the day, and a scroll containing the following inscription:  THIS CORNERSTONE OF THE GIRARD COLLEGE FOR ORPHANS WAS LAID ON THE FOURTH DAY OF JULY 1833 IN THE PRESENCE OF THE MAYOR, RECORDER, ALDERMAN, SELECT AND COMMON COUNCILS OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, AND THE TRUSTEES OF THE GIRARD COLLEGE FOR ORPHANS, BY THE BUILDING COMMITTEE CONSISTING OF JOHN GILDER, CHAIRMAN, JOSHUE LIPPONCOTT, JOHN R. NEFF, DENIS MCCREDY, JOSEPH WORRELL, JOHN BYERLY, EPHRIM HAINES, AND SAMUEL V. MERRICK.  THE ARCHITECT IS THOMAS U. WALTER, THE GENERAL SUPERINTENDENT IS JACOB SOUDER, THE SUPERINTENDENT OF MARBLE WORK IS FINDLEY HIGHLANDS, AND JOHN P. BINNS IS THE CLERK OF THE WORKS.[10]  For years, historians debated about the location of the cornerstone.  Biddle in his ground-breaking speech says, “Tomorrow the earth will cover it.  Ours are the last eyes which shall look upon it, and hereafter it will lie in its silent repose, unmoved by all the revolutions of the changing world above it.”

            Besides the Main Building, the Will called for four side buildings and Walter submitted their plans in 1835.  He called them numbers 1,2,3, and 4 and that designation lasted until 1927.  No.1, later designated Allen Hall, contained four dwellings for the staff.  No.2, now Bordeaux Hall, contained 4 dormitories, 2 section rooms and toilets to serve 100 students.  No.3, now Mariner Hall contained the dining rooms for all, and parlors for the staff.  No.4, now Merchant Hall, contained small dormitories and an Infirmary.  The designs intended a capacity of no more than three hundred students.[11]   The Will required that College be enclosed by  a wall.  The wall is ten foot high, 16" thick, 6843 feet or one and a quarter miles long.[12]   Within the walls, a farmhouse, barn and appropriate out-buildings were built at the west end, where approximately twenty acres remained initially unused.  Five acres of the farm at the southwest corner were not incased in the wall, and on it Girard Estate houses were built in the 1890s.

            Construction of the College was completed on November 13, 1847, after many delays.  Construction proceeded exceedingly slowly, often interrupted by litigation initiated by Girard’s family and public critics.  Some people claimed that many delays were intentional because so many bodies of governing people and officers  involved with the construction, were "eating up a large portion of the fund which Mr. Girard devoted to the education of the poor orphans."[13]    In 1842, the State House of Representatives conducted a hearing to determine " if the City of Philadelphia knowingly or willfully violated the conditions of Stephen Girard’s Will in the construction of the College."  Duane, Girard's attorney, testified that Girard considered himself a builder and had he lived he would have supervised the building of the College.  Duane stated that Girard had a mason evaluate the stone on the property and he concluded that it was inadequate for the buildings, but satisfactory for the wall.  Duane testified that Girard considered columns to be in bad taste and hated them so much that he considered removing them from the front of his Bank.  Duane concluded his testimony by stating that the proposed College was more like a temple and not what Girard had in mind and surely not appropriate as a College for poor orphans. [14]

            Whereas the Will called for a "plain and comfortable home" for the orphans, the critics claimed that the finished product was a marble memorial.  The local newspapers criticized the building committee for having unwisely spent Girard's money, especially for including the 34 Corinthian capped columns that each cost $13,000.  The columns are six feet in diameter and fifty-five feet high, sitting on bases nine feet three inches in diameter and three feet two inches high.  The Corinthian capitals are eight feet six inches high.   The columns were carved on the grounds of the College.  During 1835, 26369 cubic feet of marble were delivered to the College, mostly from Chester County quarries.  At both ends of the Main Building, doors 16 feet wide and 32 feet high were inserted.  Sidney G. Fisher, a prominent Philadelphian, in his diary entry of Oct. 16, 1840, states that the Whig party of the City was expected to lose the 1840 election because of "the abuses in the management of the Girard College & estate."

            Whereas Girard thought that his college could be built for $350,000 and be completed in two years, it took 15 years and Walter's final report to the Building Committee shows the cost to have been $1,933,821.78, conveniently close to the two million dollar maximum permitted by the Will.   John Sanderson, writing under the penname Roberjot, [15]  wrote  a thirty-two page dissertation critical of the construction.  He believed the grandness of the main building to be inappropriate for poor orphans.  He suggested that some mothers might want their children born orphans so that they could attend such a grand place.  He complained that in comparison to the 110x160 feet Main Building that cost slightly under one million dollars, the 386x140 feet Naval Asylum was built for $240,000, the 88x160 foot United States Bank  for $280,000 and the 120x200 feet United States Mint for $130,000.  He castigated the Building Committee for having wasted considerable money on "needless ornaments" that Girard would have hated.

            The crowning stone of the  Main building was placed  on August 29, 1846 and the finished College was transferred to the Directors on Nov. 13, 1847.    Girard College opened on January 1, 1848 and   Joseph Chandler, President of the Board of Directors and Joel Jones, the President of the College addressed the Select and Commons Council of Philadelphia, the Board of Directors, friends, and the ninety-five students who had entered the college between Dec. 27 and Dec. 31, 1847. The staff consisted of sixteen directors and seventeen  officers and teachers.  During the first year 205 boys were admitted from Philadelphia and 31 from other parts of Pennsylvania.  The average age was between eight and eight and a half .   George W. Jackson was the first to graduate and he later became a bank president in Bellefonte, Pa. [16]

            When the college first opened, the buildings were  lighted by oil but shortly after gas was introduced.   In November 11, 1848 a break occurred  in the Spring Garden Water Works, located just northwest of the College, and the force of the flood was so great that 120 feet of the north wall and 100 feet of the south wall were washed away as well as the dam in the pond located near the west wall. [17] 

            In his final report to the Board, Thomas U.Walter, in talking about  the Main building, says  “ The reverberation of sound in these rooms, in consequence of their magnitude and their arch-formed ceilings, render them wholly unfit for use: ....... They are, however, constructed in exact accordance with the Will, and these results were anticipated in the earliest stages of the work.”   The First Annual report of the Directors was submitted Dec. 5th, 1948 and it reported that shortly after the College opened it was determined that the sound reverberation of the Main building rooms rendered them impossible to teach in.  Classes were temporally moved to Bldg. 4 (Merchant) while dropped ceiling were installed in the Main building.    In the Main building, three of the second floor rooms were used for primary schools and parts of the fourth room were used for French and Spanish instruction. One room on the third floor was used to instruct drawing.  The north-west room on the first floor was a lecture room and used also for teaching natural History and physiology. The other three rooms were used for moral and religious instruction, a school library, and one for Stephen Girard books , clothing and furniture.

            On May 27, 1847, the Select and Common Council (the City’s governing body)  passed 12 ordinances   “To provide for the Organization and Management of the Girard College for Orphans”.   Some of those were replaced in June 1856.   For many years, all changes to the Board or the College were accomplished by ordinances.   One ordinance indicates that the Directors of the College were elected for a four year term, not for life, as is the case today.  An ordinance to construct what became Banker Hall was enacted on December 20, 1849, two years after  the college opened and after experience revealed a water problem.  Another ordinance dated June 14, 1856 authorized a new school building for the primary  level.  Many of these ordinances were revised by the Rules For the Government of the Girard College For Orphans[18] dated April 8, 1857.  They covered meeting arrangements,  powers and duties of the President, selection of officers and committees,  and the responsibilities of the Accounts, Library, Instruction, Household, Admission, and Estimates committees.   The revision  define the responsibility of every position within the College.  One rule reads,  “The President shall conduct the family worship, morning and evening, which shall consist of singing a hymn, reading a portion of Scriptures, and prayer.”  This reflects that, from its beginning, the College intended to emphasize religion in spite of the clergy prohibition in the Will.  The rules, and there were many, permitted students to leave the college two weeks during the summer months only “when the mother or kin resides out of the county”.

            The first President of Girard College  was Alexander Dallas Bache, who was a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  He was elected President in 1836, and although he traveled extensively in Europe preparing the Girard College curriculum, he left the position before the College opened. He became president of the new Philadelphia Central High School.  

            The second President of Girard College was the Hon. Joel Jones who, at the time of his selection, was the President Judge of the District Court of Philadelphia and had been a professor at Dickinson College.  He was chosen President on Dec. 15, 1847 and resigned June 1, 1849.

            Dr. William Henry Allen, the third President of Girard College was a Professor of Mental Philosophy and English Literature in Dickinson College, Carlisle Pa.  He served from January 1, 1850 to 1863.  Dr. Allen also became the fifth President when he was re-selected again in 1867 and served until August 29, 1882, when he died.  He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, coincidentally near the Girard College plot.  It is interesting to note that for the first few years of the College, aside from the President, all other staff people were women, purposely hired to achieve some feeling of parental relationships.


[1]Walter's final report, on page 37, indicates that when construction was concluded, the western part of the campus contained a farmhouse “constructed of the material of the old mansion, which originally occupied the site on which the main College building now stands.”

[2]Louis dePui Vail, a local attorney whose ancestors owned the farm presented the college with a copy of an original painting of the main house and also supplied most of the information about it.  From the March 1930 Steel & Garnet.

[3]   Henry W. Arey, author of the book Girard College and Its Founder, published in 1856 was the first Secretary of the Board and also Girard College.

[4]The competition drawing for the construction of Girard College were rediscovered, in the fall of 1956, stored in old file cabinets on the third floor of Founder’s Hall.  The drawings and many other papers were stored there in 1885 by the Secretary of the Board.  The drawings represent the concepts of some of this countries best architects, bidding to construct Girard College.

[5]Monument to Philanthropy, Laverty, Lewis, and Taylor, published in Philadelphia in 1998.

[6]Final Report of The Architect of the Girard College for Orphans, January 8, 1848

[7]Roger G. Kennedy's description of  Founder's Hall, in his book Architecture, Men, Women, and Money, Random House, NY, 1985

[8]   Arey’s book

[9] Monument to Philanthropy, Laverty, Lewis, and Taylor, published in Philadelphia in 1998, Introduction

[10] Microfilm roll 2-477, available at the College and the American Philosophical Society, the organization who bore the expense to film the valuable  Girard papers.

[11]Enrollment remained at 300 until 1863.  With the addition of  new buildings it was increased to 520.  

[12]In a 1931 issue of Real Estate Magazine, it was suggested that part of the west end wall be removed so that the neighborhood people could enjoy the appearance of the new west end buildings. Dr. Herrick, in his 1932 report, suggested that consideration be given to replacing part of the wall with a fence to improve the esthetic appearance of the whole campus.   This had already been done near the Library and High School, on both sides of the Lodges.

[13]Arey’s book 

[14]Microfilm roll 2-478

[15]Probably an attempt to have people believe that it was written by John Henry Roberjot, a Santo Domingo Creole who came to Stephen Girard as a ward, then became his protégé, confident, and most trusted employee for nearly thirty years.  J.H.Roberjot died in 1828, before Girard.  Source: A Catalogue of the Personal Library of Stephen Girard by William F. Zeil

[16]In 1934, James LaSerre, 90 years old, the last survivor of the original class, died. He graduated in 1857. 

[17]S&G Oct 1942.

[18]Copies of the governing rules are appended to the Early Board Reports.


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