A Brief history of Power and Planning in Rittenhouse Square

Originally written 10/1/2020 for grad school, edited.
Philadelphia’ Rittenhouse Square Park is well-regarded among urban critics, architectural historians, and city planners alike, ranking high on canonical lists of “Great American Urban Spaces.” Known simply as “the Square” to many residents, it is a crucial public good in densely-crowded Center City, and is an integral component of William Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia. Development in the neighborhood, as well as the philosophies behind park management, reflect conventions of social patterns and trends of city elites up to present day.
The neoclassical park, designed in 1913, combines traditional and modern materials to communicate City Beautiful ideals about public space and architectural form. The design was the work of architect Paul Philippe Cret, who trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was the head of the aArchitecture program at the University of Pennsylvania. His plan plays with the close study of geometric forms, communicating with other historically-referential examples of Philadelphia public architecture. Traditional materials, such as limestone, are used alongside new materials like concrete - demonstrating a harmony between classical sensibilities and modern attitudes.
Grand corner entrances, articulated with classical urns and balustrades, establish two diagonal paths (a rare luxury for pedestrians in a rigidly gridded city), whic thath intersect with a circular ring path. The primary and more heavily traversed axis is an allee lined with cChestnut trees, benches, and formal gardens:, the other with simple connecting pathways to the central space. The intersectionfocal point of the axesis is marked by an octagonal Vvictorian gazebo - a panopticon guard house at the center of a generous plaza, ringed by more balustraded railing and urns on classical pedestals, flanked by a rectangular fountain and formal gardens. Surrounding lawns extend to hedges and a low fence, which separates the interior green spaces from the generous perimeter sidewalk. Various gracefully curving paths break throughup the fencing, connecting idiosyncratic desire lines and minor entrances.
As the park’s pathways are optimized for the circulation of neighborhood residents, the three-dimensional form is similarly attuned to human-scale leisure, the size and shape of the sSculptures and architectural features encourage organic interaction through size and shape. The design of Albert Laessle’s beloved Billy, a small bronze goat situated on a short plinth, encourages young children to interact and play on the beloved sculpture through the design of these forms alone. In addition to the balustrades, 145 six-foot benches in the park can facilitate seating, provide carefully spaced can facilitate seating andto facilitate both public and conversations. The constant flows of people, and variety of seating spaces, gives the Square the feeling of a grand outdoor living room. Because the park’s inviting design encourages nearly 24- hour use, there are always eyes watching the park, and it statistically remains an extremely safe part of Center City.
Jane Jacobs discusses all four Philadelphia squares in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but bestowssaves praise onfor just one: “Rittenhouse Square, the success, possesses a diverse rim and diverse neighborhood hinterland… the mixture of uses of buildings directly produces for the park a mixture of users of enter and leave the park at different times… The park thus possesses an intricate sequence of uses and users.” Today, the squares north of Market Street are surrounded by highways and auto-oriented boulevards, and Washington Square has significantly different overall character, partly a result of Federal oversight, location, as well as a design which providescontains far fewer seating areas and gathering spaces.
In designating the Squares for public use in 1682, William Penn, an English Quaker and philosopher, envisioned these squares “... for the like Uses, as the Moor-fields in London…[sic]” UnlikeSeparate from our conception of a park, tThe marshy Mmoorfields north ofaround London wasserved as a public and freely-accessible commons, used and maintained for public benefit.
Throughout the Colonial era, the sSouthwest quadrant of Philadelphia was known as the “Governor’s Woods,” an old-growth forest at the edge of the urban core. Development here was thwarted through most of the 1770s by the inaction of absentee landowners who were sympathetic to the Crown, including Penn’s heirs. With the Revolution came an increased agitation for the reclamation of these disused parcels; and with passage of the Divesting Act of 1778, the Commonwealth seized land from these absentee loyalists, and the namesake forest was cleared in anticipation of imminent development. In the 19th century, Philadelphia came to be seen at the nexus of a global network of industry and trade - the “workshop of the world.” Although simple Quaker tastes had dominated Philadelphia style in early years, a new class of wealthy industrialists, executives and factory owners used their new fortunes to construct lavishly-ornamented homes on the newly available plots west of Broad street.
A tall and sharp perimeter fence topped by sharp iron spikes,was constructed in 1853, wasmarking the first meaningful efforts to not only to oversee, but guard, the Square. Formal efforts to take local control of the parkSquare ’s future were spearheaded in 1913 by J. William White, a Fairmount Park Commissioner, surgeon and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. White was joined by neighbors, including members of the influential Price family ( who were instrumental in the expansion of Fairmount Park), and the École des Beaux-Arts trained architect Paul Cret. The dire situation moved the residents to action, and the Rittenhouse Square Improvement Association was formed to guard and steward the park’s future. The group, led by White, commissioned Cret to design the European-inspired park that is largely extant today.
The Square’s physical form continues to be shaped by Philadelphia’s local elite. Neighborhood-provided funding begets local control, and is an invisible and remarkably continuous aspect of the the last century of the park’s history, with implications for the space’s present function. The city, grateful to be relieved of a significant operational burden amid relentless budget cuts, continues to own title to the park, but cedes functional responsibility to small groups of neighbors.
Despite the potential for adverse outcomes with this type of agreement, Rittenhouse Square remains a space that continues to attract Philadelphians from across the city. The ballet of city life will continue to play out in Rittenhouse Square, as Jacobs noted, but if reforms to stewardship are notn’t made, the stage setting behind of that ballet will continue to fray.

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June Armstrong | 844 N. Broad St
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