“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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