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The Masterman School

Articles on this website have already discussed two high schools in the Baldwin Park neighborhood. The first, the Central Manual Training School at 17th and Wood Streets, no longer exists, as discussed here. The second, John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School at 311 North 19th Street, exists as a building but since 2022 not as an educational institution. This article will discuss the third high school in the neighborhood, the Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. Masterman is a co-ed magnet school for grades 5 to 12 within the Philadelphia Public School system. There are 1,200 students in grades 5 through 12. Admission is competitive, with a high school acceptance rate of only 3%. Selective admissions and high standards have consistently earned Masterman the honor of being ranked the best public high school in the State of Pennsylvania (and in the country in some rankings). Quantitative measures like an average SAT score of 1433 (2021 results), the highest in the state for a public school, account for part of these high rankings. Admission to Masterman is based on prior school attendance, prior grades, and for high school, scores on standardized assessments. Of all the Philadelphia public school criteria-based schools, Masterman and Central High School have the toughest standards for admission.


Brass plaque on the west side of Masterman near the Spring Garden Street corner.

The dates and names will be explained in this article.


Masterman today

The wealthy have been able to educate their children, sons and daughters, with tutors or private schools, throughout history. In post-Revolution Philadelphia there were also private schools that provided free elementary grade schooling, like the Aimwell School for the Free Instruction of Females (1796-1923), established and run by philanthropic Quaker women. In Philadelphia in 1802 the legislature provided what would now be considered school vouchers, payments by the City to allow poor children to attend private schools. In 1818 the Pennsylvania General Assembly established the First School District of Pennsylvania, situated in Philadelphia County, and set up the Model School near 8th and Race Street. The Model School had elementary grade students that were taught using the methods of the principal, and experimental educator, Joseph Lancaster: older children taught younger ones. The Model School also educated and trained girls (and only girls) to be teachers, which was the main career opportunity for unmarried women at the time. Married women were expected to give up their teaching careers and run their households. At the school’s peak there were 600 students enrolled.

In 1836 the Model School building became a traditional grammar school with abandonment of the Lancastrian methods. More teachers were needed. In 1848 the Philadelphia Girls’ Normal School was founded and moved into the Model School building. A “normal” school was a school for teacher training, teaching the norms of good teaching practice. This was the first secondary public school for women in Pennsylvania and the first municipally funded teachers’ school in the United States. The Girls’ Normal School moved into a new building a block west in 1854. The name was changed to Girls’ High School; the School of Practice (teacher training) was abandoned in the building in 1859.

These preceding two paragraphs explain the bottom three dates and names on the Masterman plaque.


The Aimwell School at 931 Race Street as seen in 1870. This school was founded in 1796 by the Quaker Society for the Free Instruction of Female Children under the leadership of Anne Parrish. Up to 80 students, of all faiths, were taught at Aimwell. The school moved to this building in 1825, one block south of the Model School.


The year 1818: Model School at Maple and Chester Streets (near 8th and Race in what is now Chinatown). Photo credit here.


Photo of the Girls’ Normal School at Sergeant Street between 9th and 10th Streets, erected in 1854. Photo credit here.

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Portion of the 1867 Hexamer map with the old (Chester and Maple Streets) and the new (Sargeant and 9th Streets) normal school. Vine Street runs horizontally at the top of the map. Sassafras (now Race) Street runs horizontally below Franklin Square. These two streets, and Sargeant Street (now Spring Street), are the only streets on the map that still exist today. The Aimwell School is at 931 Cherry Street marked “School” at the bottom left of this image, one block south of the new Normal School.

In 1860 the name was again changed to Girls’ High and Normal School to accentuate the fact that the school offered teacher training as well as purely academic subjects. Seniors in the three-year curriculum who wanted teaching careers taught younger students in the model classrooms. Other career opportunities were opening up for women: the Philadelphia School of Design for Women opened in 1848 (now Moore College of Art) and the Female Medical School of Pennsylvania in 1850.


Girls’ High and Normal School moved to a new building at 17th and SG in 1876. The northeast corner of 17th and Spring Garden Street had been purchased by the city and the building was constructed and furnished at a cost of $275,000 with the ability to accommodate 1,300 pupils. The new school had a three-year curriculum, with a fourth year added for those doing their teaching preparation in the model classrooms. Girls’ High School and the Normal School, due to a growing student enrollment that reached 1,800 by the year 1890, separated in 1893. Girls’ High School stayed at 17th and Spring Garden Street, while the Girls’ Normal School moved to 13th and Spring Garden Street in a new building with auxiliary teaching buildings surrounding it. The Girls’ High School would be the main pipeline for the flow of students into the Girls’ Normal School, which now became more like today’s equivalent of a junior college. One notable neighborhood graduate of Girls’ High School in 1910 was Elizabeth Hirsh, who would go on to design the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center at 1825 Callowhill Street (now the Baldwin Apartments).

The Girls’ High School building was razed and replaced with the current building in 1932.


Portion of Hopkins map from 1875.

Also notice the subdivision of the property owned by Barton Hoopes (not “Hoopers”) one block west of the school site. He and his mansion are discussed in our article here.


Girls’ High School sketch from here.


1882 curriculum at the Girls’ Normal School from book here.

The book contains description of the building’s exterior and interior and sample questions for third year examination. Try some questions yourself here.

Just Outside the Neighborhood


1893 new Girls’ Normal School on the northwest corner of 13th and Spring Garden Streets from here.

The 1893 Girls’ Normal School was built on the site of the Spring Garden Commissioners’ Hall. This hall had been built in 1848 when Spring Garden was an independent city, and the 9th largest city in the country by population. Once Spring Garden became part of Philadelphia City in 1854, the hall lost its original purpose. The hall was razed in 1892, having lasted only 44 years; a sad ending to an imposing building.


Spring Garden Commissioners Hall as sketched in 1852.

This was also the home of the Wagner Free Institute of Science from 1855 to 1865.


Photo circa 1920. This view is looking east down Spring Garden Street from Broad Street. The statue of Matthias Baldwin seen in the lower left was on the median at this corner before being moved to the north apron of City Hall. The Lulu Temple is on the left. The Odd Fellows Hall is at the right edge on the south side of Spring Garden Street. The business classes from Girls’ High School were held there after 1895 due to crowding. The cupola left of center in the middle-distance tops the Girls’ Normal School at 13th and Spring Garden Streets. The townhouses between the Lulu Temple and the Girls’ Normal School were used as classrooms for student teaching observation. These ancillary buildings, all of which are now gone, are better shown in the next set of images.


Ancillary buildings on Spring Garden Street, from here.


Demonstration and observation at 13th and Spring Garden in 1933, right before it closed. Teachers from within and outside the school would observe to learn best practices.

The 13th and Spring Garden Street building would house the Philadelphia Normal School from 1893 to 1933. That year saw the conversion of the Normal School to Stoddart Junior High School while retaining the newer Thaddeus Stevens School of Observation (see below) for teacher training. The Girls’ Normal School/Stoddart building was razed about 1980 and the site is now a surface parking lot.


In 1958 Girls’ High School moved to a new building at Olney and Broad Streets, where it is today. It remains exclusively female. The coed Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School opened in the 1699 Spring Garden Street building in 1958 after the move of Girls’ High School. Masterman was originally an academic magnet school for students in grades 4, 5 and 6. Grades 7 and 8 were added in 1959, and grades 9-12 in 1976. In 1990 Masterman was re-organized as a middle school (grades 5-8) and a high school (grades 9-12). The school is named for Julia Reynolds Masterman, who was instrumental in establishing the Philadelphia Home and School Council (PHSC) and served as its first president. According to the PHSC website, its mission is to “teach and train parents how to become activated educational activists and parent organizers in all neighborhoods to ensure that their communities are protected against the displacement of students while helping them collaborate with local/statewide organizations and school administration guaranteeing that each student has an equitable and holistic educational experience.”


Floor plan of the first and third floors of Masterman from 1934. The school has four floors plus a roof deck and a basement. Irwin T. Catherine was the architect. It was placed on both the National and Philadelphia Registers of Historic Places. For the National nomination form see here.

Secondary public education for boys in Philadelphia did not start until Central High School was opened in 1836. The first building (1836-1854) was at Juniper Street near Market Street; the second (1854-1900) at the southeast corner of Broad and Green Streets; and the third (1900-1939) at the southwest corner of Broad and Green Streets. These latter two buildings were two blocks away from Girls’ High School. In 1939 Central moved to its current location at Ogontz and Olney Avenues, today only one block away from the latest Philadelphia Girls’ High School. In 1977 the United States Supreme Court ruled that Central could remain an exclusively boys’ school, but another legal challenge in 1983 led to the first women being admitted. Girls’ High still remains exclusively for women. The site of the third Central High School has since become the site of the public high school for our neighborhood, Ben Franklin High School. Currently Masterman, Central, and Girls’ High are all magnet schools in the Philadelphia School District. In 2019 average SAT scores, one measure of student selection and achievement, and a predictor of college academic success, were 1403, 1250, and 968, respectively.


Third Central High School building at Broad and Green Streets in 1910.

Further Outside the Neighborhood

Just to add to the confusion about high school names in our near-neighborhood, the William Penn High School for Girls opened in 1909 at 1501 Mount Vernon Street, just north of the Girls’ High School at 16th and Spring Garden Street. In 1973 William Penn High School for Girls became the coed Franklin Learning Center, which it is still named. A new William Penn High School was built in 1973 at 1333 Broad Street and was a coed high school. It was demolished after Temple University bought the site in 2014 and the site is now occupied by Temple athletic fields.


A close read of the signage for the Franklin Learning Center reveals its former name, the William Penn High School for Girls.

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This 1938 aerial photo shows the clumping of high schools in our near neighborhood: Girls’ High School (1), Central High School (2), and William Penn High School for Girls (3).

In 1937 the Baldwin Locomotive Works buildings were cleared east of the Mint.

High resolution image here.


To complete the discussion of girls’ secondary education and demonstration schools, I will touch on the blocks between Broad and 13th Streets and between Spring Garden and Green Streets. These next two schools were built in 1926 and the buildings still stand.


The Helen Fleisher Vocational School was built as a trade school for women. It became the Stoddart-Fleisher Junior High School; then a middle school; then the Philadelphia High School for Business and Tech until 2013; and presently serves as the Parkway Center City Middle College. PCCMC has a joint program with the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) in which high school students can earn a high school diploma as well as an associate degree from CCP upon graduation from PCCMC.

In this 1926 photo looking south down 13th Street, the cupola on top of the Girls’ Normal School can be seen on the left.


Former name carved in stone above the arch and the current name on the door


Thaddeus Stevens School of Practice between the Lulu Temple and the Girls Normal School in 1927. There are bridges joining the 2nd, 3rd, and fourth floors of the Stevens School to the Normal School. Those bricked up passages are visible on the east side of the Stevens building today. Stevens was converted into loft apartments in 2016.

Thaddeus Stevens School of Observation was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 (application here).


Spring Garden Street entrance today


West Laurel Hill Cemetery

published July 2024

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