Good Eye: Opening the big doors at Girard College

Newly restored doors, Founders Hall, Girard College, 2101 S. College Ave, Philadelphia.

At the north end of Corinthian Avenue stands the most Parthenonlike of Philadelphia's many Parthenon-inspired buildings: Girard College's Founder's Hall. The Greek Revival temple, designed by Thomas U. Walter, is actually bigger than the Athens original, with massive fluted columns that rise 65 feet and that are topped with tiers of vines and flowers that form the architectural capitals (Corinthian, of course).

Such an immense structure requires an equally massive entrance. Walter, who was just 28 in 1832 when he won a national competition to design a school for "poor white male orphans," made the front doors 31 feet high and more than 15 feet wide and outlined them with button studs and an elaborate egg-and-dart frame. And because Founder's Hall is perfectly symmetrical, the back doors are identical.

Founder's Hall took 14 years to complete and was then the second-most expensive building in America, after the U.S. Capitol. The estate of Stephen Girard, who left the $2 million bequest that still funds the boarding school, spared no expense. Chester County white marble sheathes the walls and columns. The doors are carved from white pine slabs as thick as a book.

Doors like that are heavy. It wasn't long before the wood began to sag and scrape the marble floors. As the brass hardware grew stiff, it became difficult to open even a single section of the four-panel entrance. Though Girard College (now open to all children) is still funded by the original bequest, its budget didn't allow a major renovation. Enter an alumni group called Founder's Keepers.

They raised $230,000 to undertake a complete restoration. Under the supervision of Vitetta architect Joe Sorrentino, the doors were stripped bare with dental tools, and details were brought back to their crisp original form. All the hardware was made functional. The big discovery by paint specialist Frank Welsh showed that the original hunter green had morphed to sage.

Now, those doors glow a rich dark green, and every button is in place. All you have to do is turn the doorknob to enter.


The main entrance to Girard College is, appropriately enough, on Girard Avenue at Corinthian, an extension of 21st Street. Founder's Hall, which houses a museum of Stephen Girard's furniture and housewares, is free to visitors Thursdays and by appointment.