Rittenhouse Square Park
Between 18th and 20th Streets
Submitted by: KALYAN DASGUPTA
A gorgeous Center City landmark surrounded by a commercial and residential district.
Rittenhouse Square is a gem in the heart of Philadelphia: a green, leafy oasis, bounded by Walnut Street, 18th and 20th Streets, Locust and Spruce. A variety of buildings, most of them architecturally notable, surround the park: elegant turn-of-the-century apartment buildings, brownstones, and the mansions that make up the Curtis Institute and the Art Alliance, as well as modern high-rises. The strip of Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square features a good selection of upscale shops and restaurants, but the other streets near the park are more welcoming.
The space is among the best-used public spaces in the United States. Furthermore there is a sense of community here: an interaction between the habitues of the park that one actually feels that this is the City of Brotherly Love after all. People recognize each other and life here has a comfort and allure that has almost vanished everywhere else in the city and the country. The community's general affluence does help; but there is much more at work here.
What Makes Rittenhouse Square Park a Great Place?
Rittenhouse Park is organic to its surroundings. It is separate from the aggressive hustle and bustle of the Walnut/Chestnut Street shopping areas, and its boundaries are well defined. Yet the park insinuates itself into the heart of these busy streets, separating them from the leafier residences on Locust, Spruce, Delancey and Pine Streets. It is of course accessible by foot, being in the heart of an east coast downtown, and of course by all means of public transport. It is eminently easy to hail a cab from Rittenhouse Park. The park also features some wonderful sculptures and is surrounded by some of the most elegant urban scenery in the United States. The relative compactness of Rittenhouse Park adds to its visual appeal, as does the elegance of its entrances.
Rittenhouse makes an immediate and striking impression for its green-ness and the beauty of the park itself, as well as the neighborhood around it, which features a great diversity of architectural styles as well as a mix of residential and commercial uses. The urbanist Jane Jacobs correctly describes this area of Philadelphia as the perfect urban neighborhood.
Rittenhouse Park features plenty of benches, each (it seems) with a personal dedication. This is truly a park beloved to its community - itself a beguiling mix of old money, new money, no money, Penn graduate students, young professionals and professional hobos. There are probably more women than men in the park. Families and their dogs and babies are plentiful in the park between six pm and nine pm. But there are people here at all hours of night and morning too. It is as safe, I think, as Philadelphia can get. This district, being home to many affluent and well-connected individuals, has a strong police presence. Crime has been falling in the city generally, and in this area is not regarded as a major problem. Rittenhouse Park (unlike lots of other places in Philly) is clean. Not just that, but it is a true public gathering place- a great place to sit and savor the offerings of one of the neighborhood's many interesting coffee places and bakeries, read the paper and people-watch.
Activities are a drawback, I suppose, to Rittenhouse. It is a small park and there are no particular amenities here. But it is green, there are interesting sculptures, and plenty of families and dogs. That said, users do vary greatly in age and gender. It is a favorite place to read the morning paper, sip coffee, or just take a break for all ages. All parts of the park are well used - the park, however, is just the center of an extremely robust neighborhood. Not all the neighborhood is as elegant as the park, but the diversity of options, from tree-lined streets like Delancey, to streets like Spruce, Walnut and Sansom that feature either shops and restaurants, housed either in large buildings, or in brownstones, add immeasurably to the connectedness of the park to its surroundings.
This is of course a favorite meeting place for Philadelphia residents. The community around it is diverse, albeit predominantly quite affluent - with several of the brownstones on nearby streets and several of the condos in elegant buildings such as the Barclay and 1830 Rittenhouse fetching $1 million or more on the market. However, unlike other cities, Philadelphia never seems intimidatingly posh or overly manicured. There are always plenty of down-to-earth people, of all ethnicities, and the concentration of University of Pennsylvania graduate students in the streets to the West of the park prevents this place from acquiring too much of an air of exclusivity. In any case, the park is the pride of many Philadelphians, I feel.
History & Background
In its earliest days, the Square, then called Southwest Square, was a pasture for local livestock and a convenient dumping spot for "night soil". By the late 1700's the Square was surrounded by brickyards because the area's clay terrain proved better suited for kilns than for crops. In 1825 the Square was renamed in honor of David Rittenhouse, a brilliant Philadelphian astronomer, instrument maker and patriotic leader of the Revolutionary era.
By the 1850's a building boom began, and in the second half of the 19th century the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood became the most fashionable residential section of the city, the home of Philadelphia's "Victorian aristocracy." Some of the mansions of that period still survive on the streets facing the square, although most of the grand homes gave way to apartment buildings after 1913.
Fairmount Park Commission General Information: 215-685-0000
- Fairmount Park Commission - The Commission's page on Philadelphia's Squares
- The World's Best and Worst Parks - Rittenhouse Square Park is on PPS's list of the best squares and plazas in the world