Good Eye: Dropsie College's elegant temple

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One of the relics of North Broad's upscale history, the Dropsie College temple features a neoclassical facade. The building was sold recently. (FX)

Battle-scarred as it is, North Broad Street is still punctuated with an extraordinary collection of majestic buildings. The farther north you go, the more beat-up its gilded relics seem to get. Yet at the corner of York Street, you'll find an intact neoclassical complex sharing company with a gas station and a vacant laundromat.

The plainer of the two limestone pavilions was built in 1905 to house Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, a private university that was devoted to the "scientific" study of ancient languages and Jewish history. The goal, according to historian Arthur Kiron, was to show that the "basic values of America" were also Jewish values. Construction was funded by Moses Aaron Dropsie, who made his fortune from investments in Philadelphia's early streetcar lines.

Dropsie was a member of the thriving German-Jewish community that began leaving South Philadelphia's teeming immigrant neighborhoods in the 19th century for the more upscale environs of North Broad Street. The wide boulevard became the stage for showing off their success, and they built a string of grand mansions and institutions. North Philadelphia was attractive because it also gave the manufacturing tycoons easy access to their factories.

Dropsie College's architect, Abraham Levy, is not well known, but he crafted a simple, but perfectly proportioned classical building that housed offices and Dropsie's extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts. Next door, on the corner, is the Mikveh Israel synagogue, built in 1909 by Picher and Tachau. It's three huge arched doors are set off by pairs scrolled, Ionic columns, and it is the far more ornate of the two.

It seems likely that the choice of the classical style was intended to advance Dropsie's agenda of proving that American and Jewish values were compatible. At the time, many Jewish institutions were choosing Venetian and Moorish motifs to establish a connection with their medieval religious past. But classicism, which the early republic had adopted as the physical representation of democratic ideals, was better suited to conveying Dropsie's commitment to all things American.

The institution began to fall on hard times in the late '50s, around the time when Philadelphia Jews were beginning a second migration to the suburbs. Mikveh Isreal closed in 1976 and Dropsie shut down in 1981 after an arson on Nov. 9 - the 43d anniversary of Kristallnacht - nearly destroyed its priceless library.

Eventually, Dropsie was reconstituted as the Center for Judaic Studies, now part of the University of Pennsylvania, and housed in a modern building at Fourth and Walnut. Until recently, Dropsie's elegant classical temple served as a shelter for homeless veterans. Mikveh Israel's congregation is now located at 5th and Market, on the east side of Independence Mall.

Last month, the building was sold for $825,000 to Shai and Anat Argaman. I wasn't able to reach them, but let's hope their plans for the building - listed on the city's historic register - will do justice to the ideals that inspired Dropsie's founders.


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Dropsie College is at 2331 N. Broad St. The nearest stop on the Broad Street subway is Susquehanna-Dauphin. Walk two blocks north. As a bonus, stop in the Philadelphia Doll Museum at Dauphin to admire the fascinating collection.

Note: This column was corrected to clarify the separate architectural history of Dropsie College and Mikveh Israel.