A brief history of a pioneering school
The Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD) has a long and rich history, much of it in northwest Philly. With the recent celebration of the school’s 200th anniversary, it’s a good time to look back at the history of this groundbreaking institution.
The school was founded in 1820 as the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb by Philadelphia merchant David Seixas, who would become the school’s first principal. For the first five years of its existence, it had no permanent home. However, this changed in 1825, when it opened its doors at 320 South Broad Street (now the site of Hamilton Hall on the University of the Arts campus).
The PSD remained there until 1892, when it relocated to a large farm and orchard at 7500 Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy. The 33-acre site allowed for the school’s expansion, while providing the students, faculty, and staff open space and fresh air. With both the Allen Lane and Mount Airy railroad stations nearby, this allowed the PSD to remain within easy reach of the attractions of Center City and allowed family members to easily visit students living at the school.
The institution flourished in its new Mount Airy home – the 1918 annual report boasted an attendance of 523 students who represented 46 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Students also came from Delaware, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, and West Virginia. Of the student population, the PSD had not only deaf students, but those who were both deaf and blind.
Classes included the standards of “reading, writing and arithmetic” as well as lip reading, but also included cultural content and programs, such as those held at the school’s annual “Demonstration Day,” which included folk dances and games, wand drills, competitive marching, horse and parallel bar swinging, and ribbon dances.
The school also had industrial/vocational programs, which offered classes in sewing, printing (including the production of the student publication Mount Airy World), masonry, carpentry, baking, and grounds maintenance and growing vegetables, to name a few. In the case of the latter, a vegetable garden was opened on a parcel existing on the other side of what is now SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West line (part of Fairmount Park today).
The year 1918 proved to be a difficult one for the PSD. When the Spanish Flu pandemic arrived that fall, the school went into lockdown, much as area schools did with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No visitors were allowed; while this was initially successful, the flu eventually found its way onto the campus, and four members of the PSD community died as a result. Adding to the difficulties the school experienced that year was the ongoing presence of World War I, which caused both inflation and a shortage of supplies. This caused budget shortfalls until the war ended.
The 1920s were generally a time of prosperity for the school, reflecting that of our nation. The decade ended badly as the Great Depression of 1929 caused declining enrollment and a loss of funds which dogged the school well into the mid-1930s. However, it rebounded from near-closure by the end of World War II and entered a long period of steady enrollment. The campus grew in size as well with the construction of science and technology buildings in the early 1960s.
The prosperity was short-lived as enrollment once again declined over the ensuing years and it became apparent that such a large campus was no longer needed. As a result, the school purchased the old 6.5 acre campus of Germantown Academy at 100 West School House Lane in Germantown, and relocated there for the start of the 1985 school year.
As for the school’s previous campus in Mount Airy, it was the home of Spring Garden College from 1985 through 1992, when the college closed. New Covenant Church purchased the property a short time later and has remained there ever since.
The PSD Today
The school provides education for children ages three through young teens in preschool, elementary and middle school classes. In keeping with its tradition of honoring the past, its Heritage Museum features items from all the past campuses of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The school also supports the local community by providing adult literacy classes and early intervention services for parents dealing with deaf infants. For more info, visit psd.org or contact them at email@example.com. They can be contacted by phone at (215) 951-4700 or (267) 331-4748 (videophone).
NOTE: Back issues of Mount Airy World and annual reports of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (available at the ) informed the writing of this article. Copies of Mount Airy World and school annual reports from 1883 and from the 1910s and 1920s are housed in the Germantown Historical Society’s collections. They are available for online review by contacting Alex Bartlett at the Germantown Historical Society (info below).
About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.