New Brewerytown resident Shelby Smith, shares her thoughts and some history about the famous Girard Avenue architectural icon – Girard College.
Brewerytown Literally Dead Ends into the History of Philadelphian Academia, Forcing the Neighborhood to Pay Attention to its Past.
Having once lived in Fishtown, I go back to visit my old roommates and my boyfriend on Fankford, meaning I take Girard- (meaning I take Girard, and S. College, and N. College, because Girard just disappears). When I first moved to Brewerytown, I was confused by the intersecting angular routes I was expected to take, when I knew that Girard should take me all the way down to where I needed to be. What was this strange interruption, this natural detour that everyone else seemed to understand with no skin off their teeth? Once the cardinal College streets meet back up with Girard, to the left drivers can see some seemingly out of place Greek Revival Architecture that looks more like it belongs in Fairmount Park, but is in fact breaching the intersection of Broad and Girard. Those who have been North Philly residents for longer than I have, know this to be Girard College.
It looks like it’s closed for business, like it’s no longer in operation; perhaps because of the style, perhaps because of the slight-of-hand/misdirection sense of seclusion and distance from the city. However, my inclination to think that Girard College is a mere landmark, rich with history and nothing else, is wholly false. Girard College is a boarding school in full operation for grades one through 12, the sentinel of its contribution to the community being its academic scholarship program that supports the entirety of every single students’ tuition, room and board.
The school has been met with a wide variety of criticism and praise since its inception in 1833, and official door opening in 1848. The city of Philadelphia, having been the recipient of the largest private philanthropic donation to date, was torn between the last will and testament of founder Stephen Girard, and the ever-changing sociopolitical climate, culminating in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Philadelphia was no stranger to pushing the boundaries of state vs. independent business, in many positive ways, including the Eastern State Penitentiary’s ethical philosophy on imprisonment, the Franklin Institute’s commitment to advanced and complex scientific research, and Penn Hospital’s humane treatment of mental illness at a time when lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were the only practice.
Stephen Girard came to Philadelphia from Bordeaux in 1776, fresh off of a 12-year stint at sea where he served a nontraditional apprenticeship in mercantilism, acquiring unique business acumen that poised him to be the first independent banker, and subsequently wealthiest man in America by the time he died. His will very specifically outlined the explicit intentions for the sizable fortune he had built over his 55 years in the states. He wanted a boarding school to be built for the admission of white boys who were fatherless and poor. He wanted a national contest to determine which architect to commission for the planning of all academic and campus buildings. He wanted to steer away from Greek and Latin curricula in favor of French and Spanish and the practical real world application of those romance languages as opposed to the classical. First admitting boys between the ages of six and ten from Philadelphia, enrollment spread to Schuylkill and Luzerne counties, as many children were orphaned due to an increase in the mining trade and the inevitable accidents that unfortunately accompany such a profession.
While the institution served many struggling families at its advent, the parameters for acceptance into the school grew increasingly ostracizing to the growing neighborhood surrounding the property walls. Though North Philly had become home to a substantial population of black residents, the statute on which the school was founded still outlined exclusive admittance to white boys. Prominent Philadelphian black physician, Dr. Nathan Mossell, challenged Girard College in 1944 and was soon backed by the NAACP in what would be a long battle to integration. Appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, and led by Cecil B. Moore, figurehead of the Philly chapter of the NAACP, Girard’s tax exemption and educational licensure was challenged through picketing and standing firm ground against a prominent police presence to see the first male minority students welcomed on September 11, 1968. Female students began enrollment in the ‘80s.
While the history of Girard College has elicited controversy, much like most government or independently-owned institutions of the time when segregation was the rule, the mission and core values of the boarding school reflect an evolutionary loose grip on the once firmly affixed specifications of Stephen Girard’s will. The present state of the Girard College website beautifully details this evolution under the History section. In terms of the Evolving Curriculum, and Girard Today, “The ways Girard College has changed over the years reflects the ways America has changed. In its first century, for example, the school prepared boys for the trades and professions of their era with academic, mechanical-trades and apprenticeship training. Today we prepare boys and girls for college and to lead successful adult lives.” Also, “Stephen Girard, born more than 250 years ago, could not have imagined the ways that our country, its citizens and their roles would change over time. He couldn’t imagine a female justice of the Supreme Court or an African-American U. S. president. The great triumph of Girard College today has been its adaptation to changes in American society while maintaining Stephen Girard’s original mission to educate children to become productive citizens.” All constitutions need amending.
Today, over 22,000 boys and girls turned young adults have matriculated from Girard College, having received a phenomenal and comprehensive education featuring advanced placement and honors courses, with an impressive 95 percent college placement rate. Even more remarkable, is that students are granted the opportunity to study and live there through academic merit alone, since no one can buy their way into the program. Students come from single-parent low-income families and are bestowed with all of the essentials including their books, supplies, and uniforms after successfully interviewing and testing adequately on the entrance exam. Students whose families live in Philadelphia proper often visit them on weekends, but field trips, community service and sporting events are planned every weekend as well for those who stay on campus.
While sitting at Rybrew yesterday, an acquaintance of mine compared the 3000 to 2700 blocks of Girard to Sesame Street. Experiencing the diverse neighborhoods and boroughs of Philadelphia makes the strengths and weaknesses of each region clear, and an undeniable strength of Brewerytown is its family-style bond. When walking down the street, a friendly greeting is always appreciated and I can’t go half a block without a friend, shop owner, or person I met once three weeks ago saying “Hi” and asking how I’m doing. It’s been interesting to see how genuine the connection between people is and how deeply the ties are knotted. Girard College is an abrupt rerouting of Girard Ave. on the way to Northern Liberties or Fishtown from Brewerytown, but really it was an abrupt rerouting of the American ideal of education at the turn of the 20th century, as it tested the limits until they broke in terms of racial, religious and gender equality. Its location only strengthens the deep pride of Brewerytown as a staple in the continuing cultural evolution of our city.