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History of Rittenhouse Square

“The best known of Penn's four squares is Rittenhouse Square, a beloved, successful, much-used park, one of Philadelphia's greatest assets today, the center of a fashionable neighborhood… Immediately beyond the rim, in the streets leading off at right angles and in the next streets parallel to the park sides, is an abundance of shops and services of all sorts with old houses or newer apartments above, mingled with a variety of offices… This mixture of uses of buildings directly produces for the park a mixture of users who enter and leave the park at different times… because their daily schedules differ. The park thus possesses an intricate sequence of uses and users”

-Jane Jacobs, excerpt from the Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

For over three hundred years, Rittenhouse Square has continuously served the public. The six acre Square, first indicated on William Penn’s 1682 Plan of the City of Philadelphia, was located deep within dense woods through most of the eighteenth century. In the years leading up to America’s independence, this forest, known as the Governor’s Woods, was cleared in anticipation of future development.

Neighbors have always been at the forefront of efforts to improve and maintain this Square, first starting in 1816 with new lawns, and a wooden fence to keep grazing animals away. In 1825, the Square was renamed by City Council after notable Philadelphian David Rittenhouse, to honor his life and achievements as an astronomer, inventor, and first Director of the United States Mint.

By the middle of the 19th century, the neighborhood, which mainly consisted of brickyards and factories, experienced a residential building boom. Surrounding the Square, notable industrialists and philanthropic families began building large mansions on nearby major streets, with the immigrants and Black families who supported them living on the picturesque narrow streets nearby. By the dawn of the 20th century some of the wealthiest and most important families in America maintained primary residences on Rittenhouse Square.

It was at this time the Rittenhouse Square Improvement Association was formed by a group of near neighbors who were concerned about the future appearance of the Square and wished to fund a new design. In 1913, inspired by public squares and urban parks in Europe, the group hired architect Paul Philippe Cret who had just completed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway project. He was renowned for his civic architecture and public buildings across the nation and taught architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His design for the Square, a mix of classical sensibilities and modern attitudes, remains largely unchanged today. 

In the postwar era, grand mansions around the Square were largely replaced by condominium buildings and co-operatives that maintained the elegant charm of the neighborhood. During a period marked by disinvestment, this development meant that the Square maintained a dynamic character. In the 60s and 70s, the Square became a safe haven, fulfilling its role as a true public square, where hippies, homosexuals and other marginalized groups could meet and socialize alongside high society. It was at this time Rittenhouse Square began to attract the attention of urban scholars, who carefully studied how the form of the neighborhood and the design of the Square would brought together people from a variety of backgrounds, as it still does today. 

Following renovations made for America’s Bicentennial in 1976, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square was established to serve as the nonprofit steward of the Square and carry forward the work started by the Rittenhouse Square Improvement Association. With a mission to Preserve, Protect and Beautify the Square, the group continues to carefully maintain the space and make changes for the benefit of all who enjoy it. As the group prepares to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the Friends still bring significant upgrades to the Square each year, with projects such as hanging flower baskets, custom-designed benches and improved lighting. 

One hundred ten years later, Paul Cret’s careful design still brings together visitors from all over the world. Successful and important Philadelphians call the Square their home, and the beloved park attracts people from all walks of life. Architects and urban scholars come to study the flows of people throughout the day, and the wide variety of seating gives the Square the feeling of a grand outdoor living room. Each day, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square continue to maintain this beloved public space for the benefit of all.

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