Buildings Then and Now: Drexel University Main Building

Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison stood around mingling in the Grand Auditorium in Drexel Main at 32nd and Chestnut streets. Maybe they talked about light bulbs or possibly the future of steel. Maybe they even talked about a joint venture. The Vice President of the United States, Levi Morton, was there. Robert Pattison, governor of Pennsylvania, attended, too. Maybe Edison and Carnegie didn’t talk at all. But they were there. The date: Dec. 17, 1891. The occasion: the dedication of Drexel Main.

The mission of the Drexel Institute, as it was called then, was outlined clearly by Chauncey DePew, who would become Senator from New York state in seven short years. Drexel, he said, would focus on producing graduates who would go on to careers in industry and the sciences. It would give a practical education and ensure that its graduates would be well equipped to find work and success upon receiving their diploma. He said:

“The Drexel Institute is not a charity. It neither offends the proud nor encourages the pauper. This school will give him a full mind and healthy body. It will so equip him and open avenues for his energies that instead of dynamiting the successful he will be himself a success…It is a noble recognition of the needs of the youth of both sexes by placing before them the weapons and the armor for the battle of life, and training them in their uses. It will nurture and instruct a better and broader womanhood, a braver and more intelligent manhood, and a more patriotic citizenship.”

Not much has changed since then at Drexel, including Drexel Main, except the name, of course. That and it has grown. But allowing women to matriculate at the time, before they were even allowed to vote, was progressive indeed.

Drexel Main Building, 1892
The Drexel Institute Main Building in 1892...
Drexel Main Building in 2012
...and the Drexel University Main Building today

The building cost $500,000 to build at the time. Anthony Drexel, the college’s founder, gave over $1 million in long-term securities to its endowment, which produced $50,000 annually, and a large collection of books to its library, according to a January 1892 article in Harper’s Weekly. His goal was to produce students whose desire was not to accumulate large amounts of wealth but rather work hard at their given field and contribute to the common good. Not that Drexel considered wealth a bad thing; he just didn’t think it was the only thing.

Today, the building is much the same. Its classical Renaissance style and light buff brick with terra-cotta ornaments of a darker color are as beautiful as they were in 1891, and it still stands on its granite base on a two acre site.

The Great Court
The Great Court

Its Great Court too is uncannily similar in appearance to the day of its dedication. The chandelier that hangs in the center of the court is still there. However, it isn’t the original. An explosion at the Tidewater Grain Elevator on Market Street the evening of March 28, 1956, caused the administration at the time to remove the chandelier. In 1891, the chandelier lit the court at night with incandescent light via electric filament bulbs, which were the equivalent of the iPad today—cutting edge. In 2006, a reproduction of the chandelier by Voith and Mactavish Architects and Klemm Reflector Company was installed to restore the Great Court and Drexel Main’s historical integrity.

Visiting the Great Court is like visiting the past, a past that is preserved almost perfectly. And it goes deeper, since the interior of the Great Court reminds one of the interiors of the courtyards in Spanish villas or the Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba or other similar places with multi-storied arcaded walls. Those walls allow for higher ceilings, just like in Drexel’s Great Court. Perhaps that’s what the architects had in mind, since in medieval times courtyards like this were not only used as places of worship but also as places of study. Algebra, which was perfected by Islamic scholars and then advanced in the European Renaissance, may just have been studied in a place like the Great Court.

The Great Staircase
The grand staircase in the Great Court

From the Great Court, one climbs beautiful white marble stairs to the classrooms and faculty offices in the east and west wings. That is what makes Drexel Main such an achievement: It turned traditional university design at the time on its head. Instead of imposing buildings on a green, complete with the clichéd ivory tower, Drexel Main was built in an urban center and in a beautiful but ever practical way.

There is one big difference between then and now: on Drexel Main’s roof, the Lynch Observatory sports a 16″ Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, Meade’s most powerful telescope available for professional university use. And on certain days it’s open to the public. That’s if you needed another reason to visit this exquisite building, a 19th-century marvel that remains, like the university that grew around it, ready for the future today.

-By Matt Stringer for

Public domain image of Drexel Main in 1892 from Wikimedia Commons; all other photos by the author