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January 06, 2016

Infrequently Asked Questions: When did Rittenhouse Square get its ritzy rep?

It's less about the park, more about the churches

Lifestyle Urban Planning
Rittenhouse Square Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Rittenhouse Square.

The world is full of questions we all want answers to but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. In the spirit of that shared experience, we've embarked on a journey to answer all of the questions that burn in the minds of Philadelphians -- everything from universal curiosities (Why do disposable coffee cups still leak?) to Philly-specific musings (How does one clean the Liberty Bell?). 

Though Philadelphia is hardly a city that bothers much with society pages or Gatsby affairs, the ritziness that Rittenhouse Square exudes endures as the exception. From the former mansion of the Drexel family to the condos of the high-powered influencers stocking high-rises today, the air sings with prestige.

... But why Rittenhouse?

Here, Kenneth Finkel, a professor of American Studies at Temple University and contributor to, taps into the story behind one of the original five public squares in William Penn's "greene country town."

What qualities did Rittenhouse Square have from the get-go that some of the other original five (Logan, Franklin, Washington & Centre) didn’t have so that it could progress the way it did?

The square became, more than any of the others, the most 'fashionable' neighborhood -- and those are words that resonate through a lot of writing over time. 

The churches also got planted there. So you have Saint Mark’s on the 1600 Block of Locust, and then Holy Trinity at the northwest corner of the square. Those were places where the biggest marriages would occur, where the wealthiest families would go. It was like "Downton Abbey" in the city. One big house after another lining the square. Between the 1850s and 1890s, it became the place where, if you had the money and were going to have a Center City address, it was going to be there. It might not be right on the square, but it would be within a stone’s throw ...

Why did the wealthy pick Rittenhouse for all that, though? Why not Logan Square? That was also west.

Logan Square was also nice, and Logan Square had the Catholic church, [but] this was not a Catholic community settling here. It was WASP-y, old money -- this was not new immigrants. And so in 1864, they’re building the Catholic cathedral on Logan Circle, and that would have sent a little bit of a ripple. But anyway, the other thing about Logan Square not being the place to live for old money was that it was closer to the Baldwin Locomotive Works, to the machine works, all those industries were near Logan Square -- you wanted to get away from the industrial area. And nobody in that period who had money and civic self-esteem in that sense wanted to live north of Market. Just like Society Hill is south of Market. From the beginning, anyone who was anybody lived south of Market. Later on, society folk situated themselves south of Market and west of Broad.

You also had weddings taking place [in Rittenhouse]. Nathaniel Burt, in "The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy," talks about these characters and these weddings, and so I think "OK, who was the first one? Who did others want to be like?" And I think the way he writes, it's George Henry Boker. Boker was born in 1823 and died in 1890, and that second half of the 19th century was when he was in his element. His father, who was a banker, gave him a house -- 1720 Walnut, a few doors east of the square. And there are some images of the house, which was a brownstone -- nothing show-offy, but it was big. And it would have, like all of them, had a staff.

But Boker, Burt says, was "an almost too perfect prototype of the Philadelphia princeling. He was very rich, son of a bank president. He was very handsome, a superb horseman, described by his friends as an Apollo ... He was one of the founders of the Union League and was appointed by President Grant as a minister of Turkey, then Russia ... But his diplomatic and dramatic career came to an end when Grant was no longer in office, and he spent the rest of his time in Philadelphia leisure. In a big house on Walnut near Rittenhouse Square, he entertained visiting notables, and died, in 1890 a disappointed man, but revered as an Important Philadelphian."

So, you know, you could look at any of the other families and come up with examples, but Boker was probably the notable one.

And that started the real estate trend? 

Yeah. And it was not just Boker, but two dozen families saying, "If Dad’s going to buy a mansion for the next generation they’re going to buy it there." Either on that block of Walnut or Delancey -- it doesn’t need to be right on the square.

The turning point, then, was mid-19th-century with all of the money coming in? 

Yeah. And I think it’s important to realize it wasn’t a turning point so much as a "turning stretch." A period of 50 or 70 years made it so that what might have been described as a fad or trend became much more established and made it a venerable Philadelphia institution. So if it just had a moment in the 1850s or '60s and moved on, it would have long ago been forgotten. But people intentionally conspired and acted to live that life for a period of a few generations made it stick.

It also has a proximity advantage, you mentioned -- being south of Market Street.

Yeah, and you have to position it in the city at the time. Broad Street in the second half of the 19th century developed as the public avenue. Here you are, in short distance to Broad Street in a clean, underdeveloped neighborhood. Whereas Washington Square had already been part of the city for the better part of a couple generations. And so here was an opportunity to own it and not share it. It was going to be largely residential, and the mansions and churches and clubs. And it was a quieter place. 

Finkel: ... you wanted to get away from the industrial area. And nobody in that period who had money and civic self-esteem in that sense wanted to live north of Market.

It doesn’t sound like the park was as instrumental to the square’s success as someone might think.

It was there, and it kind of was this destination even though it might not have been about the activity – for instance, from about the 1910s on, there was a flower show and art show. It couldn’t have really happened as well. There were these fairs and festivals on the square, muted and understated, and there’s a quote from Nathaniel Burt: "The lights through the fog settling on Rittenhouse Square are muffled and elegant, reminiscent of a vanished London."

So, you know, the idea that this was a comfort -- this idea that Philadelphia could be like this "vanished London" that no one had actually experienced but had in their imagination. And Philadelphia was very good at holding onto this. It’s like the way we held onto Reading Terminal Market. We didn’t have to allow that to survive, and yet it did. In a way, Rittenhouse Square didn’t have to retain its old sensibilities. But it did. Barely, but you do get the sense of it. The Curtis Institute is in one of the old mansions. On the west corner of 18th and Walnut streets, there’s a chain clothing store. ... These buildings could have all been like New York, demolished and rebuilt as towers and the feel would be entirely gone.

Is that why the prestige persists today? Because it's preserved? 

Yeah. I think folks, even those who didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, they see it and it distinguishes itself through its architecture, its design -- it's vintage. It’s kind of like when you walk down those blocks of 18th and 20th on Delancey and you say, "Where am I going to find another stretch like this in any city?" And the fact that it hung on, and you see the wealthiest people in the region competing -- few as they may be -- to spend many millions on those houses when they come up for sale. And you see too people who don’t want to live that way spending millions on condos in the new high rises, the few that are going up.

That isn’t to say it hasn’t transformed a lot in the last 10 or 20 years and that its original 19th-century character isn’t threatened -- I think we know from preservation challenges that it is. There are real estate interests who would tear down and build up differently. But I think, on the whole, it’s unique compared to any of the other squares in the city because of its prior combination of the physical and mental legacy.

For more on this subject, read Finkel's explanation of how "upstairs and downstairs" dynamics between the rich and poor of Rittenhouse further shaped the square's history.

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