“In an age in which the individual is merely a number to his employer, his bank, his insurance company and his government, humanizing influences are sadly needed. It is our belief that books and the libraries that make them available constitute one of the most powerful of these influences.”
–Germantown Friends Free Library Annual Report, 1963-1964
As the Friends Free Library bustled with activity, Germantown Friends School became one of Philadelphia’s leading independent school. During the late 19th century, Philadelphia flourished as an industrial and financial center, and many other private schools were founded to educate the children of the burgeoning managerial class. Northwest Philadelphia’s suburban communities supported a whole ecosystem of schools, social clubs, and retail shops. Unlike its nearby competitors, Springside School and Chestnut Hill Academy, which were based on single-sex English models, GFS had been co-ed since it’s “refounding” in 1858. As an educational institution, it had more in common with the co-ed, progressive “Hicksite” Swarthmore College than the all-male “Orthodox” Haverford College.
In an era of increasing affluence and luxury, GFS strove to maintain its founding Quaker principles of simplicity and equality.
Unlike the Gothic finery and Georgian grandeur of the era’s preparatory school campuses, the architecture of Germantown Friends School was deliberately restrained, almost austere. The color palate was predominately tan, gray, and brown. There were no soaring spires or stained glass windows in the Meeting House. It grew cautiously, constructing new buildings as needed but also freely adapting nearby older structures to meet its social club on Coulter Street became a new classroom building (fragments of the original bowling alley survive in the basement) and a converted bank on Germantown Avenue housed staff offices (the steel bank vault still resides in the basement). The Main Building, originally dating from the 1860s, was expanded many times over the years. The present-day neo-classical façade, with its arched auditorium windows and Doric columns, was completed in 1925. According to Tim Wood, present day archivist at Germantown Friends School, “The previous version of the front, from 1896-97 renovations, was thought by some to be too ostentatious.” Francis Cope, of the Cope shipping family, added “They had made quite a respectable looking building of it, somewhat marred by the addition of a prominent and incongruous porch.” The school’s student publication, The Pastorian, though, called it “a grand new building.”
The Main Building’s entrance hall showcases a collection of plays and literature that once belonged to long-time teacher and administrator Irvin C. Poley, the man who brought the arts to Germantown Friends. If kept out of the school’s main library, fiction flourished in Poley’s classroom. Poley graduated from GFS in 1908, and after college returned to his alma mater to teach English. There, the Quaker instructor urged his students to dive into the classics of Western literature, especially Shakespeare. Poley helped Germantown Friends pivot toward rather than away from the arts, for, as he wrote, “the wise educator wants the arts prominent in general education not primarily for vocational use later.”
“Include in your capital of experience vicarious experience,” he urged GFS students in one speech, “what you learn from observing your parents and teachers, from friends, from first-class books, particularly fiction. Even if you ‘re the kind of person that people like to talk to intimately and if you thus know the inner life of a great many friends and acquaintances and chance contacts, you can still learn about people and about yourself from great literature, particularly from plays and poetry and essays and biography.”
Good fiction is, of course, experience minus the irrelevant,” he added, “the life of a person given unity and clarity.”
He also fostered the development of the school’s drama program. According to one yearbook, his “energetic” readings of Shakespeare’s Macbethand Julius Caesarheld students “spellbound.”
One of his students, Henry Scattergood (related to the famed cricketer Henry Scattergood) said that it was Poley who inspired him to go into teaching after graduating from Haverford College. “Some of my clearest memories of my school life come from his classroom,” Scattergood recalled of his teacher. “I recall particularly a ninth-grade class when we acted scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and from Galsworthy’s The Silver Box,or his clever ways of putting across less glamorous subjects such as spelling. His sentence ‘Neither leisurely foreigner seized the weird height” straightened me out on the major exceptions to the ‘i before e except after c words.’ In all his teaching, Irvin Poley was always resourceful and always stretching his students. He knew and understood his students well, their weaknesses and strengths, and he continually played up the latter, so that all wanted to be their best to justify his belief in them. Even more important, he seemed every alert to seize the opportunity to relate whatever he was teaching to important issues — such as justice, fair play, decency, humility.”
Irvin C. Poley, “A Word in Parting,” June 11, 1958. Collection of Germantown Friends School.
Henry Scattergood, “From a Former Student,” undated. Collection of Germantown Friends School.
Timothy Wood, Archivist, Germantown Friends School.