11 Things You Might Not Know About: Philly’s Public Squares

Or, what not to share with your kids about Sister Cities Park.

They’re some of the most revered spaces in the city — the five open public squares William Penn laid out in the 1680s to keep the green in his “greene Countrie Towne.” Today we hoverboard inside them, crave homes adjacent to them, let our kids clamber over their statues and fountains. Here, some facts you might not know about Rittenhouse, Logan, Washington, Franklin and Penn squares, courtesy of James McClelland and Lynn Miller’s new book City in a Park.

  1. In Penn’s plan, his five squares were given simple geographic names: Southwest Square, Northwest Square, Centre Square, etc. In 1825, City Council flouted Quaker strictures against naming places for individuals and rechristened them to honor prominent men, with Penn himself at the center, surrounded by George Washington, astronomer David Rittenhouse, Colonial mayor James Logan and Ben Franklin.
  2. Penn originally planned for Centre Square to be surrounded by important government buildings. Alas, the city didn’t spread westward according to his vision, instead hugging the banks of the Delaware for its first century. In 1799, William Latrobe’s elegant water works was built in Centre Square, with sculpture and a fountain by William Rush. But the city soon outgrew that first water source; the engine house was demolished, and a new City Hall was erected here beginning in 1871.
  3. Thanks to corruption and payoffs, Philadelphia’s Second Empire City Hall cost (surprise!) three times more than its estimate, or a total of some $7 billion in today’s cash. Construction took so long that the building’s style went out of fashion before it was completed in 1901. In 1885, the Evening Standard called our City Hall the “Biggest and Ugliest Building in America.” In the 1920s and again in the 1950s, there were proposals that the building be torn down. Only the immense costs of demolition — the brick and granite walls are 22 feet thick in some places — kept it intact.
  4. The four clock faces in the City Hall tower, which are 26 feet in diameter, are bigger than the clock face on London’s Big Ben. And with 750 rooms and 14.5 acres of floor space, City Hall itself is bigger than the U.S. Capitol.
  5. In the 18th century, Washington Square served as a potter’s field for those who couldn’t afford (or were deemed not to deserve) burial in churchyards or private graveyards. During the Revolutionary War, when the British occupied the city, prisoners who died in Walnut Street Prison, at 6th and Walnut, were buried here in 20-by-30-foot mass graves, with coffins piled atop one another. It was last used as a burial ground during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.
  6. Spectators crammed Washington Square to see the first hot-air balloon flight in the nation, which took off from the jail yard of Walnut Street Prison on January 9, 1793. Attending dignitaries included President Washington and his wife, James Madison, physician Benjamin Rush and financier Stephen Girard. The pilot, Frenchman Jean Pierre Blanchard, flew as high as a mile before landing across the Delaware in Deptford, New Jersey, bearing a bottle of wine to share with locals and a letter of introduction from the President.
  7. Speaking of Washington, the statue of him at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in his eponymous square is a 1922 bronze casting of a 1790 marble work by Jean Antoine Houdon that is the only life-size statue of Washington done from life. Houdon traveled from Paris to Mount Vernon, at the invitation of Ben Franklin, to sculpt the original.
  8. And speaking of Franklin, the square named after him was used by the city from 1776 to 1788 to store gunpowder, in a fireproof building on the north side. The square was also used during the War of 1812 as a parade and drill ground for soldiers. The fountain at the square’s center, installed in 1837, is believed to be the oldest of any of the fountains in the five squares.
  9. Until early in the 19th century, Logan Square served as the site of public executions. In June of 1864, the Great Sanitary Fair was staged here, with booths and tents where vendors sold everything from guns to ale to lingerie. A Turkish-style smoking lounge was for men only. Proceeds went toward the purchase of medicine and supplies for Union troops; the fair raised more than one million dollars.
  10. For 100 years after William Penn and his surveyor laid out the city, what they called “Southwest Square” was dense forest visited mostly by hunters and fishermen. It gradually was tamed into grazing land surrounded by brickyards and kilns. In 1816, the square was fenced in with rough boards; in 1840, the first of many surrounding mansions was built, on the north side. In 1853, the board fence was replaced with a wrought iron version, and three ornamental fountains were installed. Beginning in 1913,  architect Paul Philippe Cret, who had redone the Parkway, laid out the Rittenhouse Square that we know today. The Billy statue, by Albert Laessle, was installed in 1919.
  11. In the 1950s, residents of the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood successfully protested a city proposal to build a gigantic underground parking garage beneath the square.

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