Founder's Hall in Girard College

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VIDEO: Martin Luther King Jr. at Girard College in Philadelphia, 1965

Built 170 years ago and still operational today, Girard College is one of the city’s largest active historical sites — but many Philadelphians might not be able to pinpoint where it is. That’s understandable, since the school is hidden behind a 10-foot-high, mile-long stone wall.

If you’ve ever driven westbound on Girard Avenue, or taken the Route 15 trolley to the Art Museum, you’re probably familiar with its physical location. Right around 21st Street, a massive, rhombus-shaped plot of land appears smack-dab in the middle of your path, forcing the road to to loop around it. That’s where the wall is — and beyond it, the campus.

What happens behind the wall, and what stories does the estate hold after nearly two centuries of students passing through?

As part of Billy Penn‘s Secret Philly series, we’ll take you inside.

The campus Credit: Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

Gifted kids who live on campus

Girard College is a full-scholarship first- through 12th-grade boarding school. It’s been that way ever since it opened on Jan. 1, 1848.

As a college preparatory academy, the goal for students is continuing onto higher education. This year, all 18 graduating seniors will attend college in the fall, including one student who’s set to go to Harvard.

To apply to enroll at Girard College, modern students have to meet three qualifications. They must be:

  • Living below the poverty line
  • Raised by a single parent (or less than that)
  • Academically gifted, as defined by admissions tests

Students are admitted one year at a time, via academic yearlong scholarships valued at about $65,000 each. The cost is paid for mostly by Girard’s estate — which amazingly still has enough funding, more than 150 years later — plus donations from corporations like Comcast and contributions from alumni.

Generally, kids stay with Girard College from first through eighth grade, and then are reassessed for high school enrollment. Students can also jump into Girard at various other grades, so long as they go through the regular application process and meet all the qualifications.

There’s no option to live off campus — even for the five-year-olds. Children do get to go home on the weekends, from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, part of schedule changes instituted about 10 years ago.

Girard College hallways Credit: Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

Most students are from the Philly area, but there are no specific location requirements. Basically, if you’re close enough to get home every weekend and during the holidays, you’re eligible to attend.

Girard College prides itself on small class sizes — on average, there are about 10 students per session, depending on the grade. This downsizing is recent; the campus is designed to fit thousands. But school officials purposefully only admit about 300 in an effort to give students more individualized attention.

“We’re kind of going through a right-sizing, trying to find the perfect number of students,” said school communications director Kristen Angelucci. “The more students you have, the cheaper it is per student, but we want to make sure we’re serving each student the best we can.”

And it’s hard to get in, per Angelucci.

“We do a lot of nos,” she admitted. “Your odds aren’t great.”

A philanthropist’s estate

Overall, the property between the Francisville and Sharswood neighborhoods is tremendous. It comprises 43 acres and 30 buildings in total, which is pretty much insane for a city school.

In addition to all the normal stuff — dorms, school buildings, a gymnasium and track — the campus has its own museum and a historic chapel that doubles as the fifth largest pipe organ in Philadelphia.

The chapel at Girard College Credit: Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

Doors leading to Founder’s Hall, which are worth around $50k on their own, commemorate founder Stephen Girard.

Girard was a French native who came to the city in 1776. He’d been to America a few times before, but it wasn’t until he came to Philly that he decided to stay in the country. (Good choice, Steve.)

Dubbed the father of philanthropy, Girard was the richest man in the United States when he died in 1831. Even by modern standards, he’d still be well-off — he ranks as the fourth-richest person in American history. Upon his death, he left nearly all his money to build a school in his name.

Philanthropic as he intended to be, Girard has a complicated legacy. He was a slave owner, and he stated specifically in his 50-page will that Girard College would only be open to white, male orphans.

Yeah, no. More than 150 years later, just three of more than 300 Girard College students are white, according to Angelucci.

Founder’s Hall Credit: Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

Desegregation as controversy

If Stephen Girard was anything, he was particular. Since Girard College was to be built after his death, he outlined meticulous instructions for those who would run the place. Seriously, it was intense.

His will dictated everything from the school’s curriculum to its precise architecture, and even the lunches provided for students and staff. Yup, the free lunches Angelucci eats every day are still those specifically outlined by Girard in the early 1800s.

“That’s the level of detail that’s in the will,” Angelucci said. “It dictates everything we do here.”

Also in that will is the one infamous, highly contested guideline: the school should only admit white, male orphans.

That statement is complicated for a handful of reasons. First of all, the legal definition of orphan has evolved over the years. Second of all, those qualifications blatantly violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Oops.

The entrance to Founder’s Hall Credit: Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

However, the 14th Amendment didn’t exist when Girard died, so his will wasn’t technically illegal when he wrote it — it just became illegal after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools in 1954.

Teaching a conflicted legacy

Still, at first the new rule didn’t apply to the private Girard College. It took another 14 years — which were full of protests from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Fighters right on Girard’s campus, plus a Supreme Court case battled by North Philly’s Cecil B. Moore — to officially desegregate.

“We were one of the last places,” Angelucci said. And even then, she said many alumni were upset that the school would break Girard’s will.

For the 300-plus students of color currently attending, learning about the school’s founder can be rife with confusion. How should you feel about a man who purposefully excluded them, but has since funded an education for hundreds of thousands of children living with economic hardship?

“This is the million dollar question,” Angelucci said. “Every person on campus would give you a different answer.”

The museum inside Founder’s Hall, which remembers the life of Stephen Girard. Credit: Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

Staff members try to paint students an accurate picture of Girard — highlighting the duality of the life he lived, the good and the bad parts of his personality.

“He invented giving,” Angelucci said she tells students. “We have hesitations about the way he designed it and the ways he lived his life, but no one gave on the level he gave.”

Common misconceptions

In some ways, Angelucci said she thinks her job is the hardest one at Girard College. Marketing a historic institution that few people understand is full of challenges.

There are a few repeated misconceptions she often hears:

  • “I thought you closed down like 20 years ago.” Nope. Still active, and has been for the last 170 years.
  • “I thought it was a school for bad kids.” Super nope. Girard College won’t even accept students with severe disciplinary records.
  • “I thought you only admitted students of color.” Historically, it’s actually been the opposite.
  • “I thought there was absolutely no scenario where I could get on campus.” This one’s somewhere between true and false. The campus is closed during the school day, but anyone can schedule visits to the school’s museum, and the campus is open during special events, like Founder’s Day.
The spooky basement of Founder’s Hall, where there are apparently no ghosts. Yes, we asked. Credit: Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

How do you teach a city about one of its most secret historic institutions? Angelucci is trying. She’s been revamping the school’s marketing techniques since she took over her position about a year and a half ago.

The school cut back on public advertisements, because Angelucci thought they weren’t really working. Instead, she helps the school publish in-depth magazines to explain the school. This year, she did 100-plus hours of interviews with students to incorporate their voices into the storytelling.

“I feel like we’re coming out of a hibernation,” Angelucci said. “We’re seeing an opportunity to better define who we are and better communicate it.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...