Posted on behalf of Shaun Kirkpatrick and Kelsey Duinkerken
This October Girard College opened its doors for behind-the-scenes tours of the iconic Founder’s Hall not once, but twice! Established in 1831 by the provisions of Stephen Girard’s will as a boarding school for orphaned, white boys, Girard College now admits children of all races and genders and continues its mission to serve students from single-parent families.
Tours begin on the ground floor of the massive Thomas U. Walter-designed Greek Revival building, a construction project that at its completion in 1847 was one of the two most expensive in U.S. history, exceeded only by the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The first floor features Stephen Girard’s tomb, the college’s original library, and other impressive special event spaces.
The collections take center stage on the second floor, where visitors walk through a multi-room museum and encountered gems from Stephen Girard’s estate and from the archives of Girard College. On our tours, we learned much about the life and times of merchant Girard–at his death the wealthiest man in the United States–and saw his darned stockings, two-person carriage, and furniture, including the bed in which he died. We also delved into the history of the school and what it was like to be a student, from the early curriculum focused on practical skills and languages to the various sports and extracurricular activities. Stories were brought to life by an array of photographs and memorabilia (including a 19th-century orrery) and by the tour guides themselves, Director of Historical Resources Katherine Haas and volunteer Gil Bunker (a Girard College alum from 1953).
If you’re lucky (as we were), the tour might also end with a brief behind-the-scenes glimpse into the Archives, where the records of both Stephen Girard and Girard College are stored.
Between the awe-inspiring building and the unexpected wealth of collections, Founder’s Hall is definitely worth an hour of your time if you’re in the area (it is an easy walk up Corinthian Avenue from Eastern State Penitentiary). Interested? Free walk-in tours are offered year-round on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and occasional “Second Saturdays”; group tours for 10 people or more can also be scheduled upon request (for a fee). Click here for more details.