When Penn laid out Philadelphia’s grid he included 5 squares
When I posted my pics of Chinatown I gave you a brief glimpse of Franklin Square so I thought it’d be interesting to round out the rest of them.
Luxuriant grasses, watered by a stream that cut across the northeast corner, made the Southeast Square a favorite grazing site for local farm animals. But it was not pasturage that future president John Adams meditated upon when he stopped at the square in 1777.
Washington Square is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the Revolutionary War.
As with all Philadelphia history the public gets the sanitized version. Speaking to a local sexton, Adams learned that this square, long used as a potter's field had become the final resting place for over 2000 Continental soldiers, sailors and British prisoners, many of whom had died in a prison across the street. Wounds, camp fever, and small pox had all contributed to the toll. Later historians surmised that more Revolutionary dead were buried here than at any other place in the nation.
The truth is, of course, that a potter’s field is a nice way of saying “pauper’s field” and since no one owned the square it was a convenient place to dump bodies that no one cared about. It was a graveyard for indigents. Why weren’t the soldiers given their own plot on the edge of town? Why were Philadelphians raising pigs over their resting place? Were they not appreciative? Or was it just that they were the poorest of a pauper’s army who signed up to fight because they were broke?
After the Revolution, victims of the city's yellow fever epidemics were interred here, and the square was also used for cattle markets and camp meetings. In 1815, when the city began to improve the grounds, a French botanist names Francois Andre Michaux planted trees in the square. Ever since then it has boasted an unusual variety of tree species - a "really admirable city arboretum," in the words of one 19th century observer.
In 1825 the city changed the square's name to Washington Square in tribute to George Washington, and as the surrounding neighborhood became a fashionable residential neighborhood, a movement arose to build a memorial to Washington; but the original plans never proceeded beyond the laying of the cornerstone. Later in the 19th century, legal firms moved into the area, and in the first half of the 20th century Washington Square became the center of Philadelphia's publishing industry. Popular books, medical texts, and magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal were published from offices around the square.
Two major attempts have been made to build on the square itself: an 1805 plan by the University of Pennsylvania to place its medical school here, and an 1870 proposal to use Washington Square as the site for City Hall - an idea rejected by city voters who chose Penn Square instead.
Edwin Brumbaugh and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Revolution: Beginning in 1952, public donations helped to finance a remodeling of the square and construction of a memorial, not just to Washington as an individual but also to the legions of the Revolutionary soldiers and sailors buried beneath the sod. The 1950's design, principally the work of architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh, endures today. It features an enclosure of brick walls modeled on colonial churchyard walls, with pillars supporting globe-like ornaments at the entrances. Lamps based on a style invented by Benjamin Franklin line the walkways, which form an inner square with wide diagonals. The diagonal paths meet at a circular pool in the center. Plantings of holly, dogwood, azaleas, and other small trees and shrubs combine with the taller trees to give the appearance of a quiet colonial grove.
This is the same failure of a public square (a homeless encampment) that Jane Jacobs used to highlight the successes of Rittenhouse Square. A great deal has changed in Philadelphia since Jacobs made her grim assessment 40 years ago. Locust St. travels east from Rittenhouse at 18th St. and dead ends at Washington Square just past 8th St.
For years the area around the park was dominated by office buildings with enormous footprints. The Curtis Building (along with 7th St.) takes up nearly all of the north side of the Square.
The Curtis Publishing Company (on the right) is still cranking them out from their namesake building.
The Penn Mutual Building takes up half of the east side of the square.
At the southwest corner some of the tony addresses from 1825 still survive.
In the 1960’s Society Hill, the neighborhood to the south and east of the park, was a ghetto and as part of revitalization of the neighborhood (heeding Jacob’s advice) a residential component was considered to increase activity in and around the park. It being the 60’s it took the following form –
It wasn’t until 5 years ago that anyone considered converting the old office buildings to housing. Now they’re all converted save one
Behind some of them parking is tucked discreetly down a back alley.
The last one is still under construction
. . . and what is normally a pedestrianized block of Locust St. will have to endure a few more months as restroom alley.
Still missing (as Jacobs originally critiqued) from Washington Square is a retail component. Will’s Eye and Jefferson Hospitals crush any opportunity for that on the west side. The only thing left for retail is the area to the northwest but unfortunately that is dominated by the blocks of Jeweler’s “Row”. All that’s left is Walnut St.
Across the street this old bank had a 38 story apartment dropped in its center. The builder says retail is on the way for the first floor but I’m curious to see how that works out.
around the park
And from inside the park