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Benches in the Square

June Armstrong

Mar 1, 2024

There are many things to love about Rittenhouse Square, in all weather and in all seasons. At the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, we work hard to create a space where everyone can make special and long-lasting memories. We do this every day for the people who love the park, and we take pride in maintaining a public square that’s meant to be truly enjoyed — not simply utilized — by those who visit.


This approach and focus make the Square stand apart from other public spaces in Philadelphia. It serves as a grand urban living room for the whole city. And a living room needs comfortable places to sit.


Changes in Seating

Seating in Rittenhouse Square has changed quite dramatically over the years. In his 1922 book Rittenhouse Square, Past and Present, Charles J. Cohen reminisces about his childhood in the 1850s and 60s, when short stools were provided for seating.


One of the earliest photos taken in Rittenhouse Square, from about 1880, shows a group of nannies with baby carriages sitting on short, gracefully curved benches, quite similar to those found in the Square today.

Photo from 1895 showing some of the earliest benches in the Square. Credit: Free Library Print & Picture Collection

These were replaced sometime in the early 20th century with a simpler design, made of cast iron legs and simple wooden slats. Their light weight and construction unfortunately made them easy targets for theft, so starting around 1935, these were then replaced by concrete-arm benches that can still be found in some areas of Fairmount Park.

LEFT: A view of the Square from shortly after 1913, showing the benches that were common in City Parks during that time. Credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania
RIGHT: A city worker in Fairmount Park, carrying an old bench and showing off the new ones. Credit: Temple Digital Library

Since its earliest days, Rittenhouse Square’s strongest support has come from the community of Center City neighbors who live closest to it, and every generation plays an important role in caring for the individual parts that comprise the whole. The Square is in a constant process of refinement: as soon as one challenge is completed, another seems to arise.

Autumn in Rittenhouse Square (1956). Credit:

The Friends of Rittenhouse Square began purchasing the six-foot “Hyde Park”-style benches in the 1990s, to replace the concrete ones. Ultimately the organization purchased 145 benches, which were installed primarily between 1996 and 1997. These new wooden benches faithfully served their purpose for decades, becoming iconic in their own right.

Autumn 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The all-teak construction of Hyde Park benches, however, became their biggest drawback. After more than a quarter century of intense use, the all-wood construction began to fail in predictable ways. The benches were difficult to repair and still prone to further issues. A break in one part of a bench often meant another would soon follow. By 2018, it was evident that something comprehensive had to be done.

The subsequent replacement of the benches has been one of the most important and visible improvement projects for the Square in the 21st century – another example of the careful and continual refinement that makes this beloved park so special. Starting in 2019, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square brought on world-renowned landscape architect Laurie Olin, a leading expert in park furniture and urban seating, who worked with us to create an exceedingly comfortable and sensitive design suitable for a park as exceptional as Rittenhouse Square.


An Antidote for Covid

No one knew how dramatically the world would change in 2020. Rittenhouse Square became a refuge during the early days of the Covid pandemic, when lockdowns and social distancing made parks an especially important place for meeting friends and socializing. Although the increase in visitors enlivened the Square with a much-needed respite from isolation, the Friends of Rittenhouse had to adapt to the increased wear and tear that came with the uptick in activity.


The Friends continued to work with Olin and his team to refine our initial design, and during the latter half of 2021, finally got the benches into production with nearby manufacturer Design Provisions. The new benches are made of highly durable ipe (pronounced “e-pay”) wood slats attached to a sturdy cast-aluminum frame. The benches are not only comfortable and beautiful, but their design also allows us to easily replace parts with spares on hand, should they become damaged.

Freshly installed benches in the Summer of 2022. Credit: June Armstrong


When it finally came time to install the new benches, the process lasted just a few short weeks over Spring 2022. Each day, as new benches were installed, old benches were removed and inspected, but nearly all were too damaged to rehome or repurpose.


The few benches in acceptable condition were donated to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to provide some nostalgic seating for visitors at the Flower Show. I’m told (thanks to their light use) they continue to provide a place for people to sit and watch the show go by.


Our final challenge was to appropriately honor the donors from the 90s who participated in the bench plaque program. We knew this was something important from the outset — not only for donors, of course, but also for friends and neighbors who have spent countless moments walking through the Square and reading the creative messages inscribed on them.


While removing the teak benches, we saved every plaque we could; though some were, sadly, too damaged to be preserved. Some were made of black or gold plastic, while others were brass; all were important parts of Rittenhouse Square history. To honor these stories and memories, a memorial wall was suggested as a place for these plaques to be displayed going forward.


In preparation for the future memorial, I had disassembled a few of the teak benches as we removed them, and saved the pieces that were still in good condition. I made numerous sketches and worked to refine the final design to what appears today in the Square. The panel is made of reclaimed teak and serves as an elegant backdrop that showcases the variety of plaques and messages that have graced the Square.


I reattached as many of the old plaques as we had, and worked to refabricate damaged plaques so that they too could be included on the wall. The memorial is now mounted on the north side of the gardener’s shed — a testament to these donors, and all Friends of Rittenhouse Square, past and present.

The new memorial plaque wall. Credit: June Armstrong

Today, our 165 new benches offer even more places for people to sit and make fond memories. Adopting a bench in Rittenhouse Square helps fund our ongoing operations, keeping the Square clean, green, and beautiful throughout the year. Donors can create a custom engraved brass plaque that is then flush-mounted to the bench — to better protect it from vandalism and weathering. The deep engraving on these new plaques also helps ensure that their message will be preserved for decades for all who come to enjoy a rest on the bench.


Besides, what would Rittenhouse Square even be without a good place to sit?

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