Construction on the Drexel Institute was begun in 1889, the entire school contained in what is now the Main Building of Drexel University. There was accommodation for 2500 students, wood- and metal-working areas in the basement, a library and museum, a lecture hall on the first floor, schoolrooms and small lecture rooms on the upper floors, and a fourth-floor gymnasium. The location was chosen for its proximity to public transportation and railroad lines. It opened for classes in September of 1891 with 1600 students enrolled the first year.
While the Drexel Institute was notable for its inclusion of women in the student body and was considered ‘open to all’ in terms of its dedication to educating middle and working class people, this does not mean all people of Philadelphia could attend. Different majors and entire departments were gendered, and the Drexel student body remained white, with some exceptions, well into the 20th century.
Many family members have contributed to Drexel University through donations, administration, and teaching.
The board of trustees in 1891 included James W. Paul, Jr. and Anthony J. Drexel, Jr. They were also on the Board of Managers that included fellow family members George Childs Drexel, John R. Fell, Edward Morrell, and Walter George Smith. James W. Paul, Jr., the husband of Frances Drexel and a partner at Drexel & Co., was involved in the early development of the Institute and served as President of the Board of Trustees from 1894 until his death in 1908, at which time Alexander Van Rensselaer became the President of the Board, until his death in 1933.
Alexander and Sarah Van Rensselaer were particularly involved in the athletics department of the school and financing the Institute; Sarah was a major proponent of women’s gymnastic education. The two opened Runnymede to Institute students in 1911.
More Drexels served as Trustees in the early years of the school; besides those already named, Robert K. Cassatt, husband of Amanda “Minnie” Drexel, and their son, Alexander Cassatt, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Sr., and his brother, Livingston Ludlow Biddle, Sr., among others.
In more recent decades, Karen Biddle was the Marketing Director for the University’s Nesbitt College of Design Arts and Special Projects in the 1990s, and was actively involved in the Drexel Museum as well as planning the 1991 Centennial reunion for the family.
Cordelia Frances Biddle teaches Creative Writing at Pennoni Honors College.