For the Record: Penn’s first campus

After Benjamin Franklin first presented his vision for the “Publick Academy of Philadelphia,” and created a board of trustees, he found hope for a campus at Fourth and Arch streets, on the corner of what was then the city’s bustling center.

The “New Building,” depicted on the left in Charles M. Lefferts’ recreated watercolor painting, was originally a meeting house for preacher George Whitefield. It was larger in size than the State House, now Independence Hall. When Whitefield’s plans to improve the unfinished building and assemble a charity school fell through, Franklin cheaply acquired the space in 1750.

Penn's first campus
Photo by University Archives and Records Center

Franklin oversaw the changes necessary to transform the building from a church to a school. As explained in George Thomas and David Brownlee’s “Building America’s First University,” the most obvious modification on the building’s exterior was the addition of a modest belfry at the south end. It was designed by the building’s architect Edmund Woolley, but executed by Robert Smith, a master builder from Scotland. The fire bell was added soon after.

“Lacking a tower, the fire companies were persuaded by the ever-resourceful Franklin to offer the bell to the Academy, which had a belfry but no bell,” Thomas and Brownlee wrote.

The bell rang for classes, and fire alarms, until the institution moved to Ninth Street in 1801.

The inside of the building was split into different stories and designed with large, separate classrooms and office spaces. Classes for the Academy and a charity school, and eventually the College of Philadelphia, were held in the building during the 18th century, and were considered together as one institution.

The inside of the building was split into different stories and designed with large, separate classrooms and office spaces. Classes for the Academy and a charity school, and eventually the College of Philadelphia, were held in the building during the 18th century, and were considered together as one institution.

Shown on the right of Lefferts’ painting is a three-story dormitory building, which was added in 1763. Dorm rooms were housed on the upper floors, with the charity school on the ground floor.

A 1779 charter granted by the new state government created the University of the State of Pennsylvania, which rivaled the College, Academy, and Charity School of Philadelphia. In 1791, Pennsylvania formed a new state constitution with a new charter that merged the schools and created the University of Pennsylvania.

For more information on this or other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives website.

Originally published on .