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The PHS Building: 50 Years at 425

After its opening in September 1967, the faux-Colonial building at 425 Lombard Street looked like an iceberg broken free from Independence Hall four blocks up Fifth Street. The inside, pristine as it was, revealed surfaces and spaces worthy of the Old School-New School dispute.

425 Lombard in 1973, six years after opening. [Pearl ID: 13478]

To start with, money for construction had been tight. Department Manager Bill Miller once told me that United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake suggested eliminating the basement from the design as unnecessary. Fortunately for us, as planning firmed up, Bill Thompson took over as Stated Clerk. Thompson was a great admirer of PHS who brought each new GA moderator to Philadelphia to spend a day at the archives learning about PHS’s work. Between Thompson and the General Council Executive Secretary Theophilus Taylor, who was “very pushy” according to Miller, the basement was kept, meaning the Society was able to include a two-story vault for its most valuable records.

Upper vault and spin lock, September 2017.

Another basement gem from the time was the staff break room. As inviting as Society Hill is now, in 1960 it was a rough neighborhood. When Miller recruited Gerald Gillette as Guy Klett’s librarian replacement, he showed him the plans for the new building. Gillette took one look and said, “This is a horrible place to build a historical society. It’s a very bad side of town.” Miller and architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh remediated that issue by including a basement staff room so that employees wouldn’t have to venture outside for lunch.

Early plan for 425 Lombard and vicinity, December 1962. [Pearl ID: 82441]

Bill Miller recalled that the PHS Board of Directors anticipated the great growth in holdings would be stored in the two-story vault, where official records were and continue to be kept; this location, so close to the Reading Room, helped PHS become more of a service facility, responsive to visitors with record requests. Miller recalled the assumption was that the original building “would be it” for the foreseeable future. He had no idea how well-received the building would be, and how the collections would swell. Pittsburgh Seminary packed up and shipped the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) records to Philadelphia. The National Council of Churches shipped its holdings. PHS attracted notice not only ecumenically but inter-faithfully, as Max Wightman, a Jewish archivist, contacted the Society when the papers of the American Sunday School Union were about to be tossed on the rubbish heap. As Miller remembered, “Stuff poured in.”

Nora Robinson, assistant cataloger, ensured the move from the Witherspoon Building would go smoothly—by very, very carefully measuring the volume of records and detailing the shelves they would go to. She told me that others were not quite so perfectionist. On the day of the ceremony opening the new building, the handle to the front door fell off on the inside when Gerald Gillette pulled on it.

Nora Robinson, undated. [Pearl ID: 82848]