When the Curtis Institute opened its doors on Monday, October 13, 1924, its original buildings looked very much as they do now.
Yet they were also very different. Orchestra rehearsals were held in the Common Room, and recitals took place in an “Assembly Room” for lack of a proper concert hall. The school did not yet have a library, and there was a preparatory department in the building at 1720 Locust Street, where the present library is housed. During its early years in the 1920s, the school remodeled its buildings, developed its program, and established its legacy.
Three mansions on Rittenhouse Square
The Curtis Institute of Music was founded during a transitional time for Rittenhouse Square, as its stately old mansions gave way to high-rise apartment buildings. To house the new conservatory, Mary Louise Curtis Bok and her husband purchased the residence of George W. Childs Drexel at 1726 Locust Street. The neighboring Theodore Cramp mansion at 1720 Locust Street was to house the school’s Preparatory Department, while the Edward A. Sibley house at 235 South 18th Street was for the executive staff. After the school received its charter, Mrs. Bok began transforming the three mansions into a school and three artists were commissioned to illustrate the school’s prospectus - the Catalogue - with exterior and interior drawings of the buildings.
The first recitals and performances
To develop the curriculum and attract faculty, Mrs. Bok cooperated closely with two friends: pianist Joseph Hofmann, who headed the piano department and would become director of the school in 1927; and Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski was keenly aware that Curtis could nurture new talent for his famous ensemble. During the first three years he took charge of the Curtis orchestra himself while all faculty teaching orchestral instruments were drawn from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Initially orchestra rehearsals were held in the Common Room of the main building, while recitals took place in the “Assembly Room” directly to the east of the Common Room. In 1927 a new concert hall would replace the Assembly Room and its adjacent plant conservatory.
A library, a concert hall, and a new entrance
The architect hired by Bok for all initial redesigns and renovations was Horace Wells Sellers. In 1926 he oversaw the building of the new library and began designing the new concert hall. The Drexel family’s former living room (the present day Bok Room), which George and Mary Drexel had turned into a library with ceiling murals, became the new library’s reading room. From the reading room a spiral staircase led to the basement where there were several additional rooms of books, scores, and equipment. The new concert hall, named after Josef Hofmann’s father Casimir, was completed and inaugurated in December 1927. A unique highlight of the new hall, the wrought-iron gates embellishing the doors leading to the lobby of Casimir Hall, were designed and created by famed Philadelphia artisan Samuel Yellin. Once the concert hall was complete, the Locust Street entrance leading into the Common Room became the school’s main entrance.
The building at 1720 Locust Street was renamed Knapp Hall in honor of Bok's mother Louisa Knapp. During the first year the building (now the Rock Resource Center) housed a preparatory school for beginners or very young pupils who might continue to study at the conservatory level. When the preparatory department was discontinued, Knapp Hall housed the Department of Stringed Instruments and Theory.
DISCLAIMER: The images and documents in this exhibit are made available for purposes of education and research. The Curtis Archives has made every attempt to determine the copyright status of materials displayed, but due to the nature of archival materials we are not always able to identify this information.