Stephen Girard mini-film debuts as city weighs legacy

(Revised) As Board of City Trusts consultants draft what could be big changes at the city-owned, shrinking Girard College free school, boosters have raised private funds to produce an 18-minute film about its once-famous, often-controversial founder.

Banker to the US Treasury, international merchant, coal and railroad pioneer, French immigrant Stephen Girard was about the richest man in America when he died in 1831. He disappointed his many nephews and nieces by leaving most of his nearly $10 million fortune to construct Delaware Ave. (now Christopher Columbus Blvd.) and other public projects, and especially for Girard College for orphans. The legacy, now a $500 million investment portfolio (part of it leveraged), is still managed by a city-controlled board.

The film, produced by Sam Katz, the past mayoral candidate who now heads the PICA state board that oversees city finances, offers a balanced look at the founder of an institution the last generation knew mostly as the site of an epic desegregation battle.

It opens with images of the late Cecil B. Moore and other civil rights leaders marching in the street. Cut to Owen Gowens, one of four African American kids who entered the school in 1973. Gowens, who now works for Septa, notes he "always admired" Girard's vision while deploring his white, male admission bar.

Spaced in are historical-recreation scenes (filmed at Powell House) depicting a bald-mulleted Girard expounding to lawyer William Duane: "Ze will, I'm afraid the moment I hand it to my relatives, they're going to tear it apart..." Duane warns Girard's bar on clergy at the school would provoke a reaction. It did, as Protestant ministers hired Sen. Daniel Webster for a ferocious legal attack, which failed. 

Girard College's new head Autumn Graves and archivist Elizabeth Laurent help interpret; so does Drexel historian Scott Knowles - he calls Girard "a difficult man" who "worked harder than everybody else." Knowles recalls how Girard heroically headed efforts to relieve the 1793 yellow fever horror that may have arrived in Philadelphia on Girard's own ships. There's also Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo, and Michael Coard, who helped lead the successful effort to have Washington's slaves commemorated on Independence Mall.

Katz also filmed in ex-Mayor Rendell, who places the integration fight in the development of modern Philadelphia politics; his onetime chief of staff, Comcast executive David L. Cohen, who sees Girard as a modern businessman leveraging his trading fleet and vertically integrating the Philadelphia waterfront; and restauranteur Georges Perrier.

Girard has arranged an invitation-only showing next month and plans additional public screenings. More on the film here, for information email