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The Foundation of the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry
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John L. Puckett

Anthony J. Drexel created the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry—the 1891 forefather of Drexel University—with the goal of providing working-class students with a balanced education and path of upward mobility.

The Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, founded in 1891, was the brainchild of the Industrial Age financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel. Drexel aimed to provide a practical education and a means of upward mobility for sons and daughters of the urban working class. Drexel donated $2 million as the fledgling Institute’s original endowment and funded the construction of a building to house the Institute—prosaically named Main Building. A Beaux Arts-style edifice architected by Wilson Brothers, Main Building was the Institute’s entire campus. Its ornamental features conveyed the Institute’s founder Anthony Drexel’s vision of working-class uplift through vocational education and exposure to high culture.

The Industrial Age financier, civic leader, and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel (1844–1893) provided the construction funds and a $2 million endowment to establish the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, which opened in the newly constructed Main Building in 1891. Drexel created his namesake institute to provide a practical education and a means of upward mobility for sons and daughters of the urban working class.[1]

Drexel envisioned an education that would balance what Benjamin Franklin called “practical” and “ornamental” learning. Specialized vocational training would be accompanied by students’ exposure to the city’s “high culture” in the form of concerts and visits to the Free Library. An article that appeared in Harper’s Weekly shortly after the Drexel Institute’s opening aptly summarized Anthony’s motives for this approach:

Its curriculum is such that when a young man or young woman goes forth from its doors with its diploma in hand, he or she may find a situation open and waiting. It will afford training—and that is practical education—to the masses, who have undoubted ability, but no possibility of attaining development under present scholastic conditions. The Drexel Institute starts upon a course of broad philanthropy, of which no man can consider the possible bounds.[2]

Mindful of his father’s immigrant roots and influenced by his niece Katherine (St. Katherine Drexel, 1858–1955), Drexel wished to open economic opportunities for Philadelphia’s ethnic working class. His models, as the historian Richardson Dilworth notes, were “New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (established in 1859), the Pratt Institute (established in 1887), and Philadelphia’s own Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (founded in 1876, the museum later became the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the school became the University of the Arts).”[3]

Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and J. Pierpont Morgan, were among the many luminaries who attended the Drexel Institute’s dedication ceremony on December 17, 1891. Averse to the limelight, Anthony Drexel was not present to hear the accolades of the many dignitaries who gathered in Main Building, a splendid 500,000 square-foot, four-story edifice designed by Joseph and John Wilson (Wilson Brothers architects).

Atypical of the architecture of its era, Main Building was neither Victorian nor Gothic in style. Instead it was reminiscent of the Beaux Arts Memorial Hall of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.[4]  The design reflected Anthony Drexel’s vision of an education balancing practical and ornamental elements. The architectural historian Amy E. Slaton says, “The appearance of Drexel’s first building declared at top volume that industrial learning and labor and the transmission of Western high culture were inseparable undertakings.” The Main Building’s decorative flourishes “conveyed the cultural educability of those inside.”[5] The exterior paid tribute to “the lofty and esoteric intellectual achievements of past epochs,” with terra-cotta representations of transformative Western intellectuals like Goethe, Humboldt, [and] Bach. “The eleven portrait medallions. . . arrayed in an archway surmounted by a winged nude female figure representing ‘the Genius of Knowledge,’” writes Slaton, “were the building’s most fully rendered exterior structures, but reliefs made up of floral and geometric motifs decorated much of the outside surface.”[6]

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[1] Cordelia Frances Biddle, “Anthony Joseph Drexel: The Evolution of a Philanthropist,” in Building Drexel: The University and Its City, 1891–2016, eds. Richard Dilworth and Scott Gabriel Knowles (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 27–37.
[2] “The Drexel Institute,” Harper’s Weekly, 2 January 1992, p. 9, quoted in Biddle, “Anthony Joseph Drexel,” 35.
[3] Dilworth, Richardson Dilworth, “Drexel, Philadelphia, and the Urban Ecology of Higher Education,” in Dilworth and Knowles, Building Drexel, 12.
[4]Amy E. Slaton, “Drexel’s Architecture: Encountering the Urban Campus,” in Dilworth and Knowles, Building Drexel, 81–101, esp. 85–90.  
[5] Slaton, “Encountering the Urban Campus.”
[6] Slaton, “Encountering the Urban Campus.” 

Continue reading Drexel University

Anthony J. Drexel created the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry—the 1891 forefather of Drexel University—with the goal of providing working-class students with a balanced education and path of upward mobility.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the academic program of the Institute grew to comprise an array of coeducational undergraduate and graduate programs in engineering, science, and technology, with engineering as the flagship discipline.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Drexel was plagued by sharply declining enrollments and hostilities between faculty and university administrators.

Drexel President Constantine Papadakis guided Drexel out of near bankruptcy and into a new millennium by refocusing the University as a student-centered institution emphasizing three essentials: “co-op, urban location, technology.”

Drexel’s plans for expansion under president John Fry focus on building upward in the campus core and—in a visionary plan for long-term development—eastward over the old Pennsylvania Railroad railyards.

In the 2010s Drexel launched a building boom of mixed-use commercial developments along Chestnut Street and on streets that intersected with the campus.

Under President John Fry, Drexel adopted a two-prong approach to neighborhood community development—creating a university-assisted middle school and a neighborhood center to connect community partners with Drexel resources.

The Drexel Institute of Technology’s successful efforts to receive half of University Redevelopment Area Unit 1—originally designated exclusively for the University of Pennsylvania’s campus expansion—asserted the Institute’s importance as a rising educational institution in West Philadelphia.

The Drexel Institute had only a peripheral and grudging involvement in the creation of the University City Science Center, a project of the West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC) in Unit 3.

Drexel unveiled a plan in 1964 for expanding its holdings and building dormitories in Powelton Village and the planned projects were protested by community members until the mid-1970s.