Rittenhouse Square


 
Originally named Southwest Square and later renamed after David Rittenhouse, a famous Philadelphian astronomer, Rittenhouse Square is one of five original open-space parks planned by William Penn. Although it is now one of the most fashionable public spaces in Philadelphia, the park was not always a popular gathering place for the city’s residents. In the eighteenth century the park provided pasturage for local livestock and by the late 1700s brickyards surrounded the square. Not until the 1880s, when the city’s elite began to move into the area, did the park begin to take on its modern elegance.

The park’s current beauty is not necessarily a product of city government’s commitment to public gathering places. Since the early nineteenth century local residents have played an important role in the park’s beautification and maintenance. In the decade before the Civil War local residents raised funds to build fountains in the park. Although the fountains created so much mud that the City Council removed them, the lack of foresight did not deter future benefactors from donating money to improve the park. In 1913, the newly formed Rittenhouse Square Improvement Association contracted Paul Philippe Cret to redesign the park. Cret’s design, which connected diagonal walkways beginning at the corners at a central meeting point, reflects the park’s current layout. The Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a nonprofit organization established in 1976, carries on the tradition of community support. The organization finances weekly landscaping in the square, the planting of new trees and shrubs, bench installation, and sidewalk cleaning.

The area around the park is still home to the city’s elite. High-rise condos and five-star hotels replaced mansions in the twentieth century. Despite the area’s high price tag, the square is one of the city’s most democratic public spaces. Rittenhouse Square brings together perhaps the most diverse sampling of Philadelphia’s residents. It also serves as a host to public art. The park boasts several of the city’s most well-known outdoor sculptures. Among them are Antoine-Louis Barye’s Lion Crushing the Serpent, Paul Manship’s Duck Girl, and Albert Laessle’s Billy.

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