The campus of Girard College is full of architectural gems hiding in plain sight. Tucked away behind tall stone walls, the school is known primarily for its massive Greek Revival Founder’s Hall, an American architectural masterpiece built from 1833 to 1847. The monumental structure was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter. After construction was complete it was the second most expensive building in the United States after the U.S. Capitol Building, the dome of which Walter also designed. To the west of Founder’s Hall lies Girard College Chapel, an incredible blend of Greek and Art Deco detailing that is relatively unknown in comparison. On Saturday, April 16 a pipe organ concert will unlock the sights and sounds of this seldom-seen work of art to the general public.
The first free standing chapel on campus was built in 1878 in traditional Gothic style. When the sanctuary became too small to hold a growing student body a competition was held to design a new chapel to replace it. The architecture firm of Thomas & Martin won the contest and building commenced in 1931. When the chapel was finished in 1933 the campus gained another architectural masterpiece and a gathering space for 2,400 people that is still equipped with one of the largest pipe organs in the city.
The exterior design of the chapel pays homage to Founder’s Hall, with looming classical columns and walls of Indiana Limestone around its three main sides. The triangular shape of the building is a uniquely modern design that was employed during construction to utilize all of the allotted land, while also accommodating the organ placement. Carvings adorn the cornice with a wave motif and lion heads. Flanking the main doors are large sculptures representing the four evangelists.
The chapel is embellished with a mix of Judeo-Christian and Greek imagery, representing the nondenominational nature of the school, an idealogical stipulation Girard place in his will. No church services have ever taken place in the chapel. In fact, originally no ordained ministers were allowed on the campus for fear of exerting too much influence on the student’s young minds. Rather, the building was made for ceremonies and gatherings aimed to inspire students with a variety of traditions.
Elizabeth Laurent, the director of historic resources at Girard College, graciously gave me private tour around the interior of the chapel and illuminated its many fascinating details.
The striking main doors are made of brushed aluminum and decorated with figures holding scales of justice and gears of industry–motifs often seen in buildings of this era. The circular lobby floor is decorated with a large heating grate representing the 12 signs of the zodiac. On both the ceiling and the marble floor are classic Greek key designs. Moving up into the hallway smaller grates show beautifully Deco-styled characters from the Old Testament.
Laurent pointed out that inside the building there is no natural lighting. The cold, blue-grey light of the lobby and ambulatory hallway is designed to contrast with the dramatic experience of entering the main chapel space. The effect is powerful. When entering the auditorium, warm orange-yellow light fills the room and glows from above. The tiered ceiling is enveloped in gold leaf squares and lit by thousands of bulbs that circle its edges. The ionic columns flanking the room are cleverly not made of marble, but instead are painted metal.
President Harry Truman’s visited the chapel in 1948 for Girard College’s 100th anniversary. Movies have been shot here as well. A scene in The Last Airbender was filmed in the chapel and crews temporarily removed all of the pews. The Philadelphia Orchestra performs here annually on Martin Luther King Day in January.
As Laurent and I toured the building, it was a major stroke of luck when renowned architectural photographer Joseph E. B. Elliot arrived to document the pipes of the Skinner organ. I accompanied him along with Girard’s instrument curator Paul Eaton up several flights of stairs to the spaces above the ceiling of the auditorium where the machinery of the organ is hidden away. The organ is the fourth largest in Philadelphia and the last personally designed and finished by Ernest Skinner of the Æolian-Skinner Organ Company.
Four stunning rooms are filled with enormous pipes composed of metal and wood, twisting and interlocking in all shapes and sizes, with 6,700 pipes in total. We cautiously climbed into the central chamber walking on steel beams with the auditorium visible directly below. The grated ceiling is open to allow the sound of the organ to fill the entire building.
Back downstairs at the organ console, which can be raised on an elevated platform, Eaton fired up the blower. The low bass pedals and keys resonate deeply and the vibration can be felt in the body. Hundreds of different sound combinations can be programmed and saved using the console mechanics. The organ is even equipped with chimes that sound like distant church bells.
There is roughly a one second delay between playing keys and hearing sound due to latency that is created throughout the mechanics of the instrument, nominally from the key to the electropneumatic device that controls air entering the pipe. The building’s size also contributes to the delay. Organ players learn to compensate for this and play to their internal rhythm without actually listening to the sound.
On Saturday, April 16 from 4PM to 5:30PM the Girard College Organ Guild will host a concert featuring world organists playing compositions by music by Strauss, Sibelius, Miller, Kerr, Vierne, Walther, Rameau, and Parry. One organist will play accompaniment for a Buster Keaton silent film. See concert details and purchase tickets HERE.
*This story has been updated from its original publication.
The divine details of Girard College Chapel. Photographs by Dan Papa.