Looking Back: History of the Mint Building
The Third Philadelphia Mint Building, which Community College of Philadelphia acquired in 1971, occupies land that was once a part of Springettsbury Manor, an almost 2,000 acre tract of land owned by William Penn. The land was named for his wife, Gulielma Springett.
Penn sold or granted parts of Springettsbury Manor to many individuals, and lawyer Andrew Hamilton received land in return for legal services. The swath of land was bounded by 12th Street to the east, 19th Street to the west, Vine Street to the south and Fairmount Avenue to the north. On what is now the south side of Spring Garden Street near 18th Street, now occupied by the Mint Building, stood Bush Hill Manor, built by Hamilton. Hamilton is best known for his defense of Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, who voiced opposition to the corrupt practices of New York Gov. William Cosby. He is also credited with helping design Independence Hall.
Hamilton died at Bush Hill on Aug. 4, 1741. The estate was passed to his oldest son, James, then to James' son William. James, a lawyer and prominent government figure, along with his brother-in-law, William Allen, conveyed some of the land to trustees in charge of locating and purchasing property for the Philadelphia state house. In 1790, Vice President John Adams lived at Bush Hill for part of his term. After the yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia in July 1793, the estate was used as a hospital.
Yellow Fever in Philadelphia
Prominent Philadelphians who were already woven into the fabric of the city's history are also known for their extraordinary efforts in helping yellow fever victims at Bush Hill.
Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, developed an aggressive treatment that entailed bleeding patients, which proved to be somewhat successful. He taught volunteers how to treat patients with this method, including Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, two free African-American men. Allen was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and both men were two of the first African-Americans to receive formal ordination in any denomination.
Merchant and businessman Stephen Girard was also integral in the care of patients. The nation's first millionaire, like a small group of other citizens, risked their own health to save the lives of others.
The yellow fever epidemic took the lives of 4,000 to 5,000 people, 1/10 of the 45,000 people who lived in the nation's capitol. Thousands of people fled the city in fear of contracting the deadly disease.
The estate eventually became a tavern, and most of the structure burned down in 1808.
After that, various factories and houses occupied the site until the construction of the Third U.S. Mint, which was completed in 1901.
History of the Third Philadelphia Mint
The building that would become Community College of Philadelphia's permanent home formerly served as the Third Philadelphia Mint from 1901 to 1969. The vast history of the Mint Building—as well as the site it occupies—is an important part of Philadelphia's heritage.
Due to increasing production demands, the U.S. Mint commissioned the building of a new Mint, to be Philadelphia's third, in the late 1880s. The building was designed under William Aiken, the supervisory architect of the U.S. Mint, and built under his successor, John Taylor Knox.
The Third Philadelphia Mint opened in 1901, equipped to handle the vast increase in output required by the government. The building and the site cost more than $2 million, and the finished building, with equipment, cost approximately $3 million. The grand Beaux Arts structure sat on 58,000 square feet of space and extended 395 feet in length. The facility contained 81,575 square feet of space.
From the granite exterior to the most modern electrical devices and coinage equipment of the day, the new Mint Building exuded strength, security and beauty. Further symbolizing its function of security are the lions that adorn the immense and detailed bronze front doors, as well as the lion-like gargoyles that sit atop the cornice line of the building. Sets of lion heads are also found on the Rotunda windows, near the ceiling.
Visitors walked into a grand lobby, decorated with colorful terrazzo tile and marble floors, intricate tile details reaching up to the ceiling, and Italian white marble walls. Three impressive eagle emblems in the floor line up with the three sets of doors.
Many design themes are continued throughout the Mint Building, such as a pattern on the floor that matches ornamentation on the outside of the building.
A grand white marble staircase led visitors to the mezzanine level, now known as the Rotunda level. On each side of the staircase, majestic sculptures of eagles with wings spread occupied space to the side of the stairs. Large lamps with glass orbs matching ones found in the lobby, were added in 1903. They sit atop a pedestal, adorned with four rams' heads and four rams' paws. Rams can symbolize leadership, authority and renewal. Symbols that are found throughout the Mint appear on each fixture: leaves and vines, flowers, and the geometric design found on the tile floor and on the outside of the building.
Looking up, visitors saw astounding artwork and detail.
A carved white marble fixture, which resembles a coat of arms, features scales, symbolic of a true and just weight; a key, symbolizing security; and 13 stars, usually meant to represent America's 13 original colonies.
The archway above them featured seven Tiffany Favrile glass mosaics, commissioned at a price of $40,000. The panels illustrate children participating in ancient Roman coinage processes, inspired by a mural unearthed during excavations at Pompeii in 1895. The panels are now on display in the current Philadelphia Mint.
The ceiling, as seen from the top of the staircase, features dozens of lights upon an ornate gold motif that features flowers similar to those found on the outside Mint doors, as well as the ram fixture, and vines and leaves. The warm glow of the space is accentuated by natural light from nearby windows.
The impressive features led visitors to the Rotunda, which was referred to as the Cabinet when the building functioned at the Mint. Draped in rich, reddish brown Vermont marble, the round structure at one time featured mahogany cases that displayed coins and medals from around the world and from ancient civilizations. The room also held mineralogical specimens relating to the metals and processes involved in minting.
The focal point of the Rotunda is the mammoth lead glass chandelier, suspended from the domed ceiling. All of the large glass lights in the Mint match, covered in black metal resembling a net. Red marble columns surround the room, and an eagle sculpture is perched above one of the doors.
The top of the Rotunda walls features four murals completed as part of the Work Projects Administration (originally Works Progress Administration) and depict a mountainous region; mountains, a body of water and miners; a mining tunnel and mining town; and a man sifting gold from stream. They honor the California Gold Rush and the Pikes Peak era of American History.
In the two hallways around the Rotunda, large circular windows allowed the view of interior courtyards, where the delivery of precious metals could take place securely from public view. Visitors could also watch workers performing their duties below.
A recent addition along one side of the Rotunda is the Gilroy Roberts Gallery and the Gilroy Roberts: Mastering a Craft exhibit. Gilroy Roberts, the Ninth Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint from 1948 to 1964, worked in the building. Mr. Roberts is best known for his design of the obverse (heads) side of the Kennedy half dollar, which was commissioned after the President's death on November 22, 1963.
One feature of the exhibit is “How They Make Money,” a video that shows portions of the Mint and its
operations, circa 1940.
Gold and silver coins, bullion and bars were stored among 20 steel-lined vaults in the basement, equipped with mammoth doors and locking systems. It was common for the vaults to contain several hundred millions of dollars in precious metals.
Hailed as a modern marvel and one of the most technologically advanced mints in the world, the Mint featured 13 gas-powered furnaces instead of furnaces fueled by coal, eliminating the problem of ash and reducing heat in the room. Gas also allowed the furnaces to heat more evenly. Electricity in the rolling department, which compresses ingots to their proper thickness, are motor operated, increasing uniformity and output. Two new electric furnaces were added in 1919. One machine could produce 100 Lincoln pennies per minute. The Mint made medals and coins not just for the United States, but for countries around the world. The Third Philadelphia Mint met coining demands for 68 years, until the current Mint opened in 1969, which is nearly three times the size of the Spring Garden facility.