Founder’s Hall at Girard College was built from 1833-1847 and its design is the result of three men: Stephen Girard, Nicholas Biddle, and Thomas Ustick Walter.
Although Stephen Girard died before construction of the building commenced, he left very detailed instructions in his will for what he described as “the college” and what would become known as the “main building.” A portion of this reads:
It shall be three stories in height, each story at least fifteen feet high in the clear from the floor to the cornice: It shall be fire-proof inside and outside…There shall be in each story four rooms, each room not less than 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 a space of equal dimensions, for an entry or hall in each, for stairs and landings: In the north-east and in the north-west corners of the northern entry or hall on the first floor, stairs shall be made so as to form a double stair-case…and, in like manner, in the south-east and south-west corners of the southern entry…the steps of the stairs to be made of smooth white marble, with plain square edges, each step not to exceed nine inches in the rise, nor to be less than ten inches in the tread …The outside walls shall be faced with slabs or blocks of marble or granite, not less than two feet thick… The floors and landings as well as the roof shall be covered with marble slabs, securely laid in mortar; the slabs on the roof to be twice as thick as those on the floors.
Girard left the school an unprecedented $2-million construction budget and members of the city government held an architectural competition in 1832 to award the job of designing the school buildings. It was the first American architectural competition to have truly national participation and Thomas Ustick Walter was the winning architect. Walter was hired on March 28,1833 and created a revised design for Founder’s Hall influenced by Nicholas Biddle, chair of the school’s building committee and a renowned Grecophile. Walter’s final design, presented on April 24, 1833, was for a Greek Corinthian temple with a peripteral colonnade.
The cornerstone of Founder’s Hall was laid on July 4, 1833 and contained a copy of Girard’s will, American coins, $5 and $10 notes from Stephen Girard’s bank, a newspaper of the day, and a scroll. The building was completed and dedicated fourteen years later in 1847. The total cost for the construction of Girard College, including Founder’s Hall, four flanking dormitories, outbuildings and the surrounding wall was $1,933,821.78. In 1851, Stephen Girard’s remains were reinterred in the school he endowed, in a marble sarcophagus in south vestibule of Founder’s Hall.
Founder’s Hall served as Girard College’s first classroom building; it also housed the school’s chapel, the school’s first library, and the papers and possessions of Stephen Girard, which he had left to the school. It was used for classes until 1916, when the High School building was completed; the chapel had received a dedicated building in 1878 and the library would be moved to its own building in 1933. Today Founder’s Hall houses the school’s museum and historic collections and serves as meeting and event space
Restoration work on the magnificent building is an ongoing project. In 2015, Girard College Alumni (Founder’s Keepers) and the Board of Directors of City Trusts partnered to restore the enormous north and south doors of Founder’s Hall. This project required months of painstaking work by a team of historic restoration experts, including analyzing 27 layers of paint dating back to 1847 to determine original paint color of the doors. The completed project won a Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. In 2017, work was begun to restore the floor-to-ceiling windows and exterior grates on the second floor of Founder’s Hall, with funding provided by Founder’s Keepers; PHMC, through the Keystone Preservation Grant program; and the Girard Estate.
In the name of Stephen Girard, of the City of Philadelphia, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Merchant and Mariner, we lay the foundation of this Girard College for Orphans.
We dedicate it to the cause of CHARITY, which not only feeds and clothes the destitute, but wisely confers the greatest blessings on the greatest sufferers;
To the cause of EDUCATION, which gives to human life its chief value:
To the cause of MORALS, without which knowledge were worse than unavailing; and finally,
To the cause of OUR COUNTRY, whose service is the noblest object to which knowledge and morals can be devoted.
Long may this structure stand, in its majestic simplicity, the pride and admiration of our latest posterity; long may it continue to yield its annual harvests of educated and moral citizens, to adorn and to defend our country. Long may each successive age enjoy its still increasing benefits, when time shall have filled its halls with the memory of the mighty dead who have been reared within them, and shed over its outward beauty the mellowing hues of a thousand years of renown.
-Nicholas Biddle, July 4, 1833 at the laying of the Founder’s Hall cornerstone