Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Girard College as an Entertainment Site

Girard College

For many decades I have hungered to visit Girard College, sitting like the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Girard Avenue, even decorated with colored searchlights after dark. In its very earliest years, the estate of the richest man in America was entrusted to City Council, but the corruption and lack of progress toward stated goals forced modification. Unseemly behavior by political leadership caused the Board of City Trusts to be created with this monumental sum of money devoted to the education of "poor, white, orphan boys". For many decades, to be a member of the Board was the highest honor in the business community, and several large business empires were added to the responsibilities. Girard had the foresight to state in his will that no Pennsylvania property was to be sold, and when the downtown area began to surround Reading Terminal the wisdom became apparent. His farm was made into rental rowhouses of great profitability in South Philadelphia, a hundred million dollars worth of coal was mined in Schuylkill County, and the first Industrial Revolution grew up in the hinterlands in response to the blockades of the War of 1812. Girard's estate was well managed, indeed, was a showpiece of Philadelphia business acumen. He died with the greatest fortune in America, but that was only the beginning of the industrial power of the leaders who really ran Philadelphia. The school for white orphan boys prospered, not merely because of the corpus of the estate. Time wore on, however, and corruption wormed its way into the Board of City Trusts, the neighborhood around the school deteriorated, and Milton Hershey was able to compete for the dwindling supply of orphans with the benefit of Girard's mistakes and successes, in his own orphanage near Harrisburg. Finally, the great migration of black people from the South took over the electoral dominance of the city to the point of dominating the courts and politics, and black girls now outnumber white boys by a considerable number in the school. Some members of the Board have spent some time in prison, but most of the scandal attached to running an orphanage has migrated to the Milton Hershey School.

Daniel Webster

It is my understanding that the wall surrounding the school was considered to be entirely too high, so they tell me half of the stonewall is buried beneath the ground, to conform to the donor's wishes about height, but also to remain a more reasonable height on the outside. Girard also provided that no ordained minister should set foot within the walls, a provision which greatly discomfited the religion department. An old gentleman named Mr. Witherbee was once my patient and told me he refused his diploma at the Harvard Divinity School graduation ceremonies and spent the rest of his life teaching Religion at Girard College after the School found he had perfect credentials for the job but lacked the stain of ordination. The President of the Dallas Federal Reserve was once a student at Girard, as was the President of the Insurance Company of North America when it was the largest casualty company in the business. Daniel Webster was engaged to represent the College in Court while he was still in the Senate. I'm told that the boys were dressed by Brooks Brothers, and on and on. I'm also told the new managers of the Board of City Trusts ran down the endowment considerably.

Girard College

Well, I finally got a chance to see the inside of Girard College, when the Shakspere Society held its annual dinner there, and it is indeed everything it was reputed to be. The Society was in black tie, having cocktails on the portico of what looked like an exact replica of the Parthenon, wafted by spring breezes and later bathed in spotlights, just like the real Parthenon in Athens. There were real guards at the gates. Dinner was superb, held in the main library, beneath a 48-step marble staircase to the second-floor exhibition halls, overseen by a curator, and filled with Chinese porcelains, leather carriages, towering bookcases, and the like. The place was immaculate, and the staircases so wide you could climb dizzying heights without getting dizzy if you stayed close to the wall. No white orphan boys in evidence, however. And for that matter, no black girls, either. Looking out at Girard Avenue, you can see a splendid avenue stretching to the casinos at the far end. And the trees were so tall, you couldn't see what was behind them.

Originally published: Saturday, April 22, 2017; most-recently modified: Tuesday, May 21, 2019