Rittenhouse 1715—Philadelphia Hotels - Luxury Lodging - Philadelphia Vacation







Rittenhouse Square is currently a very coveted neighborhood in Philadelphia. The area provides a plethora of shops and restaurants just two blocks away from our doorstep. It also houses the world renowned Curtis Institute of Music, where during the week anyone can go and experience the talent of these gifted students gratis. However none of this existed when William Penn decided to erect his city. At that time, this neighborhood was on the minds only of brickmakers and claypit workers, and on the mind of William Penn who allotted most of the lands in that area to himself and family members.

William Penn received a charter for the establishment of his city, Philadelphia, in 1681. At this time, there were already Dutch, Swedish, and English colonists with intents to explore, trade and farm in the area. (Philadelphia, A 300 Year History) Three ommissioners and one surveyor were sent by Mr. Penn that year to locate the most appropriate area for the settlement. They decided upon a 1,200 acre area surrounded on the east by the Delaware River, on the west by the Schuylkill River, and on the north and south by the streets we now know as Vine Street and South Street.

The following year William Penn and Thomas Holme divided this plot into a rectangular grid. They designed the city by quadrants, and each quadrant would flourish around a green area or square (Northeast Square, Franklin Square; Northwest Square, Logan Square; Southeast Square, Washington Square; and Southwest Square, Rittenhouse Square) All four quadrants would be laid out so that they would surround the main square where City Hall is presently located. “ Evenly spaced lots of 1 acre a piece would allow residents to have private outdoor space for gardens and retain a sense of country living.” (Cultural Landscape Foundation) William Penn envisioned a place of refuge and spiritual union; “a greene country towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome.” (Philadelphia: A 300 Year History) Having lived through the bubonic plague that sieged London in 1665, and the great fire of 1666, it is not surprising that his ideal city would consist of the previously aforementioned qualities.

The neighborhood of Rittenhouse Square was composed of the area west of Broad Street between Market and South Streets. The population was sparse due to the difficulty in going to and from the more commercial neighborhood along the Delaware River. The first settlers of Rittenhouse Square were mostly claypit and brickyard workers as a result of the propitious soil in the area for this kind of labor. They began establishing themselves after the American Revolutionary War was won in 1783 when much of the land was divested from its previous Pro­British owners and sold. The space designated for the square was not frequented much, unless you were a pig, chicken or cow. Nonetheless, the desire for more space and new developments slowly brought more settlers to Rittenhouse Square. In 1816, as a means to avoid intrusions from the friendly livestock and provide a designated space for humans to roam, the residents had a fence built around the square. This was one of the first steps in protecting the area designated by William Penn to be used for the pleasure and betterment of society.

The name of Southwest Square was changed to Rittenhouse Square in 1825 when the residents decided to honor David Rittenhouse. A descendent of William Rittenhouse, builder of the first paper mill in the US, David was a proficient tinkerer and the first director of the U.S. Mint. Among his numerous accomplishments are being Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, Vice­Provost of the University of the State of Pennsylvania and President of the Philosophical Society. By 1792, he was considered "the nation's foremost scientist and instrument maker".

Trying to fulfill William Penn’s plans for the Square was probably not what Dr. Philip Syng Physick had in mind when he decided to build his house there in 1848. In fact, the house was known as “Physick’s Folly” for being considerably out of the way from the commercial district or Old City, as we now know it. Nonetheless, Dr. Physick was in search of something similar to what William Penn had in mind, a place where he could be at peace, in a tranquil part of the city away from the rambunctiousness of the commercial center. Even though he was never able to live in the house due to the unforeseen building expenses which concluded in his going bankrupt, I can only imagine the thought of living here helped ease his senses. Old City had become everything William Penn wished to avoid, a populous urban center devoid of gardens and orchards. "Front Street between Chestnut and [Walnut Streets], the very heart of the city was an undrained sewer."

Even so, it was not till almost twenty years later that it was seen as feasible to establish a railway to the area which facilitated movement between Old City and Rittenhouse Square. The Philadelphia City Passenger Railway was extended to serve the Rittenhouse Square area in the year 1859. This provoked an upsurge of transplants to Rittenhouse Square especially among the wealthy elite of Philadelphia. “Philadelphia’s elite living around the square in close proximity to their back­street stables and servant’s quarters.” (Skaler, Robert Morris, and Thomas H. Keels. Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Arcadia Publishing, 2008.)The people who lived around the square in the period between 1860 and 1910 were considered Philadelphia's "Victorian Aristocracy".

As the neighborhood became more fashionable, so did the amenities and services provided within it. Churches and schools were built, clubs and societies were established, and a theater and orchestra developed. Remnants of this era can still be seen and enjoyed year round with the annual Rittenhouse Flower Market, the Art Alliance, the music recitals at the Curtis Institute, the plays at Plays and Players Theatre to name a few. Among the prominent elite that would grace the neighborhood with its residence were Joseph Harrison Jr., Pennsylvania Railroad Company presidents, and Leopold Stokowski. Many others visited such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry James. Henry James even graced us with the following words "Philadelphia... she couldn't not be perfect. She would be, of all the goodly villages, the very goodliest, probably in the world."

Unfortunately, not all of William Penn’s ideas for Philadelphia materialized during his lifetime or ever. Rittenhouse Square or the Southwest Square was part of his master plan, and even though what we see now is a long stretch from what was originally intended, life has been built around the Rittenhouse Square, and its essence and significance have not been undermined.