Founder's Hall and Historical Collections


PLEASE NOTE: Founder's Hall is open for visitors, for both informational tours and research. Explore the headings below for more information. It is also available for rentals; contact us for details.

Founder’s Hall at Girard College was built from 1833-1847 was built to serve as Girard College’s first classroom building and is often considered the finest example of Greek revival architecture in the United States. Stephen Girard left specific instructions in his will for the building’s dimensions and plan of the building; Nicholas Biddle, chair of the school’s building committee, president of the Second Bank of the United States, and staunch admirer of Greek art and culture also had a profound influence on its design and construction.

Following Stephen Girard’s death, members of the city government held an architectural competition in 1832 to award the job of designing the school buildings. With an unprecedented two-million-dollar construction budget, this was the first American architectural competition to have truly national participation. Thomas U. Walter submitted the winning entry. A former bricklayer, he later became the architect of the United States Capitol. Built entirely of masonry and cast iron, faced in marble, the monumental Founder’s hall structure contains 42,000 square feet over three full stories and is surrounded by Corinthian columns. In the words of a contemporary critic, "In materials, magnitude and sheer sumptuousness, it has no peer."

Click here to enjoy an 11-stop audio tour of the first floor of Founder’s Hall. Although this tour was designed for smartphone use during an in-person visit to Founder's Hall, it can be enjoyed from anywhere.

Visit and Learn More

Walk-in Tours: Walk-in visitation (no appointment required) is accommodated THURSDAYS from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for individuals or groups of up to 9 people, free to the public. Groups of 10 or more people must make an appointment and will be charged a fee.

Tours by appointment: Tours for groups of 10 or more may be planned by reservation Monday-Friday and on weekends with special arrangements. Public group tours of Founder’s Hall are $12/per person; $5 for students. Public group tours of Founder’s Hall and the Chapel are $15.

Founder’s Hall welcomes school groups all grade levels from elementary through post-collegiate for tours and activities in our collections. Visits can include a general museum tour or focus on a specific topic, such as a top-to-basement architectural tour of the monumental Founder’s Hall building, tracing the fate of yellow fever victims from 1793, puzzling through an escape room based on original documents from the war of 1812, or learning about the 1968 desegregation of Girard College and the civil rights movement in Philadelphia. Visits can also be customized to meet the needs of specific classes, drawing from all areas of our collections, including maritime history, the China trade, life in 19th-century Philadelphia, education history, and much more. 

To learn more about our school history and historical collections, please click here.

For tours and information on Historic Resources and Founder’s Hall, call 215-787-4434 or contact our Director of Historical Resources, Kathy Haas.

Resources for Educators

Girard College is pleased to share educator-created curriculum surrounding the desegregation of our campus. We invite you to explore these materials and share them with your classes.

Click here for our resources for educators.

Founder’s Hall welcomes school groups all grade levels from elementary through post-collegiate for tours and activities in our collections. Visits can include a general museum tour or focus on a specific topic, such as a top-to-basement architectural tour of the monumental Founder’s Hall building, tracing the fate of yellow fever victims from 1793, puzzling through an escape room based on original documents from the war of 1812, or learning about the 1968 desegregation of Girard College and the civil rights movement in Philadelphia. Visits can also be customized to meet the needs of specific classes, drawing from all areas of our collections, including maritime history, the China trade, life in 19th-century Philadelphia, education history, and much more. Please contact Kathy Haas, Director of Historical Resources, at khaas@girardcollege.edu or 215-787-4434 to find out more or schedule a tour.

Architecture and History

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

Museum Collections

The Stephen Girard Artifact Collection is Philadelphia’s greatest intact single-owner collection from the early national period. The items of the collection, ranging in time period from 1780 to 1830, include furniture, silver, paintings, ceramics and textiles owned and used by Stephen Girard in his Philadelphia townhome.

The rare survival of both artifacts and archives means that for many objects, we know the original maker, year of manufacture and the purchase price, which makes ours a touchstone collection for other institutions with related artifacts. Of the furnishings, most were made in Philadelphia, France or China while the extensive silver collection represents products of Philadelphia, France and England.

Most of the Stephen Girard artifacts are included in the illustrated catalog “The Stephen Girard Collection" (Girard College, 1980) available for $5.00 plus shipping. Email us to order.

The Girard College Legacy Collection at Founder’s Hall includes ephemeral items that detail the history of the school from its opening in 1848 to the present. This collection includes a wide variety of memorabilia relating to the students, faculty and campus.

Contact Kathy Haas, Director of Historical Resources, for a research appointment or for assistance searching the collections.

Museum Archives

The Stephen Girard Papers are of local and national significance. These archives consist of incoming and outgoing correspondence, year-by-year receipt books, records of his bank, ship log books, maps and charts, and his personal library. This collection is available on microfilm to scholars at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

Girard College Legacy Collection includes items relating to the history of the school including photographs, publications and newsprint. The items in this collection primarily focus on student life at Girard College, rather than the adult accomplishments of the school’s graduates.

Also included in the museum archives are the architectural drawings collection. This group of documents contains many of T.U. Walter’s drawings for the construction of the original Girard College campus and most of the drawings entered in the 1832 Founder’s Hall architectural competition.

The Girard College Legacy Collection and Architectural Drawings collection are available to researchers by appointment. Contact Kathy Haas, Director of Historical Resources, for assistance or a research appointment. For student record searches or genealogical research on an ancestor who attended Girard, please see our Student Records page.

Most of the images from the architectural drawings collection are published in “Monument to Philanthropy: The Design and Building of Girard College 1832-47 (Girard College, 1998).” available for $35.00 plus shipping.

Catalogs and Digital Collections

The Historical Collections Database contains searchable catalog records for the Stephen Girard Collection of decorative arts, Stephen Girard's personal library, and segments of the Girard College History Collections. Additional segments of the historical collections will be added to the catalog as they are completed.

The incoming and outgoing letters in the Stephen Girard papers were indexed by sender, recipient and topic, in the early 20th century. Explore the PDFs below. Please note that this index covers letters only; not ships records, bills and receipts, financial records, etc.

A-B index C-D index E-G index H-L index M-P index Q-S index T-Z index

Many historic publications about Stephen Girard and Girard College have been digitized through Internet Archive and Google Books.

Contact Kathy Haas, Director of Historical Resources, for a research appointment or for assistance searching the collections.