Founder’s Hall, the Greek Revival centerpiece of Girard College, is both a harmonious space and a point of convergence for civic discord. Frenchman Stephen Girard began his remarkable mercantile career as a cabin boy on West Indies trading voyages; by 21 he was a licensed ship captain. Settling in Philadelphia, Girard established himself as a merchant during the Revolutionary War and furthered himself in banking and real estate. Girard became a philanthropist, in one instance funding health care efforts during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. His will, created five years before his death in 1831, gifted money to an array of Philadelphia public service organizations. As the City of Philadelphia was the executor and main beneficiary of such a large estate, the will become a closely studied, and often challenged, document.
Girard’s largest posthumous philanthropic project, to which he allotted $6 million, was a trust and boarding school that he designated specifically for “poor, white, male orphan children.” He had many stipulations for the erection and plan of Girard College, including specific, and largely uninformed, dimensional requirements for Founder’s Hall (then called the Main Hall), which added time and consideration to the planning process. For example, he specified the number of rooms (four per floor), their size (at least 50 feet square), the thickness of walls and foundations, the location of doors and windows, the placement of staircases (one in each corner), and even the size of the stair treads. The Board of Trustees held the first United States architectural competition for the building’s design; the winner was Thomas U. Walter, the architect who would later design the Capitol dome in Washington DC. Though Girard wanted no “needless ornament” in the structure, Founder’s Hall was both grandly designed and the most expensive building project in America before the Civil War. The school opened in 1848, thirteen years after construction began. Founder’s Hall was intended for classrooms, but its echoing domes and poor traffic flow proved ill suited to teaching. It now houses student functions as well as archives, consisting of minutely detailed records kept by Girard and college administrators.
The school’s opening coincided with the urbanization of the area surrounding the campus. But by the mid-twentieth century, the neighborhood was experiencing a decline in population. While at the time of Girard’s death, Philadelphia had fewer than 10,000 black inhabitants (of a population of 80,500), with blacks not even considered citizens, by the 1960s almost a quarter of the city’s total population was black. In 1954, the first African American boys sought admission to the College, but were turned away due to the stipulations of Girard’s will. The case went to court, and for the next decade Girard’s campus became a crucible for the Philadelphia Civil Rights struggle. Cases were filed and re-filed, and the campus became a demonstration site. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the College’s ten-foot wall, which he referred to as “a kind of Berlin Wall to keep God’s colored children out.” In 1968, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Brown vs. Board of Education superseded Girard’s will. Since that time, additional challenges to the will have reduced the criteria for admission to children with single parents and financial need. Presently, African Americans constitute the majority of the student body, and more than half is female.
Over the past twenty years, Girard College has struggled with a declining student population and neighborhood blight. However, with the aid of alumni and community associations, revitalization efforts have taken hold. Girard is perceived as a potential anchor for positive social change and growth both in its own neighborhood and beyond.
Installed in the four former third-floor classrooms of Founder’s Hall at Girard College, nothing but what is therein contained is a series of sculptural, text, drawing, and sound compositions. The title is a quote from Stephen Girard’s will, in which he stipulates that Founder’s Hall would only house things that he specified, and nothing more. Architect Thomas U. Walter adopted the phrase as the title for his first building designs, which were extremely minimal and guided by Girard’s extensive document. However, the building’s realization, under the influence of College trustees, became quite different from what Girard imagined. With his installation, Roden takes his cues from Girard’s working principles. Yet by allowing additional elements and references to enter the space, he acknowledges the impossibility of unaltered translation—between mediums, languages, and even message senders and receivers. Each element of Roden’s installation is a linguistic rendering of the expansive spaces of this building, its histories, and the fastidious notes, drawings, and habits of Girard and Walter. Additional reference points are Benjamin Franklin, Henry Lapp (a 19th-century Amish furniture maker), and Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth (a Philadelphia clergyman and the “Father of American Beekeeping”).
In the first room, there is a letterpress book titled the glassychord, which was Franklin’s first name for his famed musical instrument, the glass armonica. The book contains a collage of fragmented quotations ranging from the construction of Founder’s Hall to Langstroth’s beekeeping. The next room contains fleet, consisting of seventeen wooden boxes, fashioned after the shipping crates that were central to Girard’s mercantile business and inspired by the aesthetics of furniture maker Henry Lapp. The words found in the related drawings, as well as on the boxes themselves, list the names of all the ships managed by Girard in his lifetime. The crates double as speaker cabinets; they amplify small sounds of a banjo whose notes were transcribed from a voice singing each ship name. The final room contains a vessel of silence. The pieces of wood that make up the sculpture were cut proportionally to the linear dimensions of the letters that form the phrase “nothing but what is therein contained.” The accompanying sound piece was composed on crystal goblets struck by mallets, referring again to Franklin’s glass armonica. The untouched archive room is the ultimate expression of Founder’s Hall’s vast institutional memory rendered into an architecture of text.
Through these compositions, Roden explodes Girard’s constraining dictum, making space for intuition and mutability beyond Girard’s carefully controlled framework. Taking the given proposition of Founder’s Hall as empty container, he fills the space with an excess of signifiers—themselves void of content and thus open to infinite interpretation.
Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia
Support for development and planning of this project has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative.
Steve Roden is a visual and sound artist based in Los Angeles. His working process systematically translates forms of data or notation (text, architectural plans, maps, etc.) into “scores,” which are then transmitted into abstracted compositions through painting, drawing, sculpture, film/video, sound installation, and performance. Roden’s scores are fixed blueprints, yet they allow for slippages and improvisations inspired by the original material. Through the scores, he generates parameters for his visual work, such as color choice, geometric forms, number of elements, and construction. Roden’s sound works are formulated to coexist with a space, its contents, and its histories. He electronically processes objects, architecture, and field recordings to create new audio spaces, or “possible landscapes.” Sound subtly inserted in strategic locations becomes a conduit for new emotional and contemplative understandings. Roden also performs his sound works at live venues. For the movement of extreme ambient minimalism he developed, he coined the term “lowercase,” in which quiet sounds are sandwiched by extended periods of silence.
Roden received an MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. He has participated in solo and group shows internationally, at locations including Studio La Città Gallery in Verona, Italy; Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles and Berlin Projects; the Mercosur Biennial, Porto Alegre, Brazil; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; the UCLA Hammer Museum, LA, the Singuhr-Hörgalerie in Berlin; and the Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), Athens.