- Donated funds to establish the Graduate Department of Women, a fellowship for women students and a women students' residence hall on the site of Fisher-Bennett Hall
Joseph Monroe Bennett, known as Colonel Bennett, was a supporter of women’s education. A self-made American dedicated to helping others, Colonel Bennett was a Philadelphia clothing merchant who used his money for public benefaction, especially helping the Methodist Church and the University of Pennsylvania.
Bennett was born in Juliustown, Burlington Co., New Jersey and raised in a family of moderate means. After a common school education, he went to work in flour mill as teenager and may have also briefly worked as a teacher before he came to Philadelphia and became a tailor in the Kensington (modern-day Fishtown) neighborhood. Working his way up in the profession, he entered the retail men’s clothing business of the Laurent Brothers and by the 1850s became a co-owner of the firm with James Umsberger and Perry McNeall, renaming it Bennett & Company. Bennett specialized in ready-made one-price men’s clothing at time when the sewing machine was transforming the clothing industry in America. He also launched a successful marketing campaign by engaging a poet (the “Bard of Tower Hall”) who composed verse for newspaper ads and by commissioning Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan to redesign his store at 518 Market Street in 1856. The building was christened Tower Hall because of the large gothic tower atop its narrow facade. The interior was lined with busts of famous people and had an impressive continuous spiral staircase. It was perhaps one of the first great clothing stores of Philadelphia. John Wanamaker worked for Bennett and Company in his early years before branching out on his own.
Bennett retired from business in 1879. He remaining years were primarily engaging in managing his numerous real estate investments, such as the Chestnut Street Opera House, in Philadelphia and Baltimore. He also became active in philanthropy. His first large gift were funds and a property in West Philadelphia to the Methodist Church for a children’s home in his mother’s memory in 1887 (today known as The Methodist Home for Children at 4300 Monument Road).
In November 1889, Col. Bennett donated to the University of Pennsylvania two buildings at the southeast corner of 34th and Walnut Streets to be used for “a department or branch of the University … devoted to the higher education of women.” These became the nucleus of the Graduate Department of Women established in 1890 and opened in 1891. The buildings were used for housing women graduate students and were called Bennett Hall. In 1894 Bennett donated $15,000 to establish two fellowships for women students and six years later he donated four more buildings on Walnut Street adjacent to his first gift.
At his death in 1898, Bennett’s assets were estimated at around $3 million. The University received a bequest of the Chestnut Street Opera House the income of which was also to be applied for the education of women at Penn and erecting a new building at the 34th and Walnut location. While plans for the new building at this site were first drawn up around 1914 it was not until 1925 that a new building was constructed. It was also called Bennett Hall (now known as Fisher-Bennett Hall) and was for decades home to the College of Liberal Arts for Women.