June 15, 1824: Hamilton Hall cornerstone laid 190 years ago

The University of the Arts’ Dorrance Hamilton Hall is an excellent example of major work by three of America’s most important 19th-century architects: John Haviland, William Strickland, and Frank Furness. Today it is the oldest extant building on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main north-south corridor, along which several of the city’s most important and prominent businesses and cultural institutions are located. It is also a prominent and vibrant part of Philadelphia’s designated cultural district, “The Avenue of the Arts.”

Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

The first of the building’s three major building phases occurred in 1824 when John Haviland (1792-1852) designed a three-story, E-shaped building in the Greek Revival style for the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (now Pennsylvania School for the Deaf). Broad Street in the 1820s was still an undeveloped wooded area and rural pastureland on the outskirts of the city, which was then centered around Independence Hall at 5th and Chestnut Streets and east along the Delaware River. The Institution was among the first social and cultural organizations to move here to escape the noise of the city. Haviland’s granite-clad four-columned Doric portico immediately became a well-known landmark. Architecturally, Haviland may have taken some cues from Benjamin Latrobe‘s then-recently completed public water works pumping station which was then located on Center Square, where City Hall is today. As a popular past-time, city dwellers would take promenades or carriage rides out to the rural countryside of Broad Street to see these two impressive and memorable Greek Revival structures.

The laying of the cornerstone on June 15, 1824, was reported as follows and is transcribed exactly:

Democratic Press [Philadelphia], June 16, 1824:

    I yesterday attended at the corner of Broad and Pine streets to witness the ceremony of laying the corner stone of the new building now erecting by the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. I can truly say that never was time passed more entirely to my satisfaction. The day was fine and the event well calculated to arouse public attention, for it gave assurance of permanency and stability to one of the most valuable of the numerous charitable institutions which adorn the city of Philadelphia. The company assembled was, therefore, large and respectable. At an early hour the children of the institution, 74 in number, accompanied by Mr. Weld, the principal, the assistant teachers and the matron appeared upon the ground, and took their station within the foundation walls of the building. The ceremony was opened by an impressive address and solemn prayer from the Rt. Rev. Bishop White, President of the institution. A charity which calls forth the active and efficient services of one so venerable, so universally respected and so generally beloved as is Bishop White cannot but be entirely worthy of public patronage, and will assuredly never make a vain appeal to the benevolence of the citizens of Philadelphia. An address was then delivered by J. R. Ingersoll, Esq., which was characterized by his usual ability and eloquence. 

    In the plan of the building the Tuscan and Doric orders are stated to be harmoniously united and when finished it is expected to be as great an ornament to the city as the institution itself is honorable to the citizens of Philadelphia. “We participate,” says the New York Evening Post, “in the pleasure which it gives to every philanthropic mind that measures are thus taking to render such an institution permanent. The gratification would be greatly increased if a similar spirit prevailed in our own city.”

The Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, now the UArts College of Art, Media and Design, purchased the building in 1893 and has occupied it ever since. It was named in 1996 in honor of a long-time trustee and donor, Mrs. Dorrance Hamilton. For more details, please see http://library.uarts.edu/archives/hamilton.html

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