Brawl on the Square

Jane Golden built the Mural Arts Program into one of the city’s proudest achievements, a testament to the power of art to transform neighborhoods. Then a painting proposed for Rittenhouse Square ruffled the feathers of the city’s elite — and all hell broke loose

Remember, this is Rittenhouse Square. “This is the crème de la crème of Philadelphia,” says one longtime resident of the Barclay who argued strongly against Paul Rosen’s mural. Could Rosen be right in claiming that his opponents are elitists, that the crème de la crème think the murals that have helped make Philadelphia famous around the world are fine in blighted neighborhoods but just a little déclassé for their sacred Square?

“I find that idea extremely insulting,” the opponent says.

And so this summer, denizens of the Square stuck out their chins and dug in their expensive heels. “Friends are pitted against friends, and neighbors against neighbors,” reports longtime city arts czar Diane Dalto, who now chairs the state’s Arts Commission, with a certain weariness in her voice. Dalto became aligned with the mural opposition. “There’s so much animosity,” she says, “that getting back to a balanced place to talk about this is going to be very hard.”

A CASUAL STUDENT of Philadelphia history might not recognize the name Thomas Holme, but every resident knows his handiwork. He was William Penn’s surveyor-general, the guy who designed the downtown street grid and devised five symmetrically situated squares where the virgin forest could be preserved. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the southwesternmost square, a six-acre enclave named for intellectual David Rittenhouse, became the fashionable address for Philadelphia’s elite.

“As Americans are a restless people in a restless age,” wrote Penn professor E. Digby Baltzell in his classic study Philadelphia Gentlemen, “neighborhoods have a tendency to rise and fall in social prestige.”

Not Rittenhouse Square. True, it’s no longer the kind of place portrayed by Ambassador William C. Bullitt (who grew up on the Square and was envoy to France under Franklin D. Roosevelt) in his novel It’s Not Done, a thinly disguised picture of Rittenhouse society in which a character asks, “Is there any other city … in which everyone who counts lives in an area three streets by eight surrounding a Sacred Square?” But those three streets by eight still house a whole lot of important people with both the high net worth and the kind of social prominence and pull that matter.

People like Wendy and Paul Rosen.

Rosen moved to 1830 Rittenhouse Square in 1982, recently divorced and caring for two young children. Not long after, he met an attractive insurance agent named Wendy Hawthorne, “and we’ve been together since that first date,” he says, “and married 23 years.” The couple never left 1830 Rittenhouse, though they moved into a larger condo with a view of the Square. Paul got rich on class-action cases; Wendy threw herself into volunteer work with the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, which raises money to beautify the grounds, pay a private landscaper, sponsor holiday lights, etc. Ed Rendell calls Wendy Rosen “the mayor of Rittenhouse Square.”