PlanPhilly

Look Up! An American classic at the heart of an urban campus

    •  The “Genius of Knowledge” watches over visitors to the former Drexel Institute building.
      The “Genius of Knowledge” watches over visitors to the former Drexel Institute building.
    • The beautifully balanced building covers an acre, with each side measuring 200 feet.
      The beautifully balanced building covers an acre, with each side measuring 200 feet.
    • Masters of the arts and sciences peer out from the archway.
      Masters of the arts and sciences peer out from the archway.
    • For the distinguished spot at entrance level, the Wilson Brothers honored architect William of Sens.
      For the distinguished spot at entrance level, the Wilson Brothers honored architect William of Sens.
    • Terra cotta decorations with classical themes wrap around the building.
      Terra cotta decorations with classical themes wrap around the building.
    • The massive building is softened by rounded corners.
      The massive building is softened by rounded corners.
    • The entrance hall opens into an arcaded courtyard of marble, white glazed brick and terra cotta.
      The entrance hall opens into an arcaded courtyard of marble, white glazed brick and terra cotta.
    • The Wilson Brothers also designed Randell Hall to the east of Drexel Institute.
      The Wilson Brothers also designed Randell Hall to the east of Drexel Institute.
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“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.

Drexel University has announced that its next big expansion will take it east, toward the core of the original campus. At the spiritual heart of that campus is the former Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, now the Main Building and visitor center, on the 3100 block of Chestnut Street.

The building will soon celebrate the anniversary of its dedication on Dec. 17, 1891, when the guests included U.S. Vice President Levi Morton, Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Alva Edison. The launch of the school founded by Anthony J. Drexel was an august event, and the building he commissioned to Joseph M. Wilson, of the Wilson Brothers architectural and engineering firm, rose to the occasion.

The Wilson Brothers had long been associated with the Drexel family, having designed a bank and several homes for them. The brothers had also built two exhibition halls at the Centennial Exposition, and would later design the Reading Terminal and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s original Broad Street station.

In his history of the Drexel Institute written on its centennial, George E. Thomas explained that for this campus on an urban street corner, the Wilson Brothers chose a stunning buff brick and terra cotta decorations that recall classical themes. The building covered an acre and consisted of two wings with regularly spaced windows on either side of a central block, which featured an arched entrance. An angelic white figure hovers at the top – the “Genius of Knowledge.” Around the arch are busts of the mortal geniuses of the arts and sciences, including Goethe, Raphael, Bach, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Farraday, Newton, Humboldt, Columbus and Jefferson. At the base on the west side is Willliam of Sens, the master-builder of Canterbury Cathedral.

The Wilson Brothers added a second structure to the east, Randell Hall, in 1901, with the same yellow glow of one of the 19th century’s most beautiful urban college buildings.

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Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.



About the author

Alan Jaffe, Historic preservation reporter

ajaffe@planphilly.com

B.A., Temple University

Alan Jaffe writes about historic preservation issues for PlanPhilly and focuses on often overlooked built landscapes in his column, “Look Up!” He
was a writer and editor in the newspaper industry for nearly 30 years, including eight at the Philadelphia Inquirer and nine at the South Jersey Courier-Post. He is currently the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He is also an antiques writer and collector and the author of “J. Chein & Co.: A Collector’s Guide to an American Toymaker.”


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