Barbelin Hall Turns 90
An enduring architectural symbol of collegiate tradition, American culture and Jesuit heritage.
Ninety years after its completion in 1927, Barbelin Hall endures as Saint Joseph’s signature building. But how many of its admirers understand the cultural messages encoded in the location and architecture of the building?
When Saint Joseph’s College moved to its current location on City Avenue in 1927, the collegiate community was served by just one building with its gleaming laboratories, classrooms, library, debating room, auditorium, chapel, cafeteria and gym. That singular structure was the stately Barbelin Hall, named for Felix J. Barbelin, S.J., Saint Joseph’s founder and first president.
The College, founded in 1851, had achieved its longed-for goal to have a Collegiate Gothic campus on the western edge of the city. The soaring 150-foot-high Barbelin tower, reputed to mark the highest point in Philadelphia at the time, served as a distinguished exclamation point to the message that Saint Joseph’s had finally arrived.
Today, all those who pass Barbelin Hall recognize its architectural beauty and prominence as the University’s landmark structure. They may not know, however, that the intricacies of Barbelin’s construction uniquely and visually link the year it was completed, the College’s history and Saint Joseph’s Jesuit mission.
The New Saint Joseph’s Campus
In the 1920s and ’30s, Collegiate Gothic was widely regarded as the ideal architectural style for colleges because it reflected an ancient and noble heritage derived from the medieval English colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. The towers, quadrangles, battlements, gargoyles, neo-Gothic flourishes and Latin inscriptions embodied permanence and elitism, as well as the monastic ideals of scholarship, faith, community and introspection.
Indeed, Albert Brown, S.J., the president who initiated Saint Joseph’s building campaign, described his vision for the new Collegiate Gothic building as “the architectural embodiment of a spiritual ideal.” Ecclesiastical though the Collegiate Gothic style looked, it was not particularly Catholic. What was Catholic, and particularly Jesuit, about Barbelin Hall, were certain architectural and decorative embellishments — stained glass shields, heraldic devices, busts of early presidents, and other carvings that decorate its facade.
All of the carvings began the same way, as blocks of limestone cut to the right size and set into their proper places on the façade, where they were sculpted in situ. While most of the carving was done anonymously, archival material reveals the name of Anthony Agunsday as a craftsman and the foreman of the team of stone masons working on the building.
The Year 1927 and the Carvings of Barbelin Hall
Confidence in the future, along with exuberance and prosperity, defined the decade known as the Roaring Twenties and found expression in mass-produced automobiles, talking pictures, jazz, modern art, newspaper comic strips and the cult of celebrity. These markers and cultural preoccupations were reflected in the carvings of Barbelin Hall.
Francis Ferdinand Durang, the Barbelin Hall architect, and his father, Edwin Forrest Durang, were the most accomplished Catholic architects in the area. Builder John McShain ’22 earned acclaim for the construction of Barbelin Hall and would go on to earn the moniker “The Man Who Built Washington” for his many important building commissions in the nation’s capital.
See sites.sju.edu/library/collections/archives-special-collections for more on Barbelin Hall, its dedication, architects and builder; the determinants of Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, and LaSalle Universities’ campus locations; the World War II Memorial to the Class of 1943A.