The Stories Behind Philly's Squares

The focal points of William Penn’s landmark plan for Philadelphia are five public squares that remain popular hubs for locals today.

In 1681, King Charles II granted William Penn a large tract of land in North America to settle debts to his family and provide a new colony for his troublesome and persecuted religious cohort the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The following year, Penn sailed to inspect the extensive landholding and to found the town that would form the core of his “Holy Experiment” of a tolerant political utopia: Philadelphia.

Choosing a two-mile long path of dry land just upstream of the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, where the rivers’ courses briefly approach each other again, Penn set about designing his new settlement. In 1683, he published a map of the city to attract settlers from England. 

English cities were an unplanned maze of old horse tracks and small holdings, and early settlements in North America followed this pattern. Penn’s map of Philadelphia saw the first iteration of the classic American street design: the simple-to-navigate grid.

Penn hoped to create a “Green Country Town,” with wide streets free of the overcrowding, fire, and disease which plagued European cities. Central to this idea was his inclusion in the design of five public squares, one in each quadrant of the city and one in the center. Though they have seen changes in form and function, these urban parks remain inviting features of this bustling modern city.

Philadelphia Map

Southwest (Rittenhouse) Square

Penn’s plan called for a rectangular town spread east to west from river to river in the area we call Center City. In its early days, however, Philadelphia grew north-south along the banks of the larger Delaware River and the area west of Broad Street was for many years sparsely populated hinterland.

The scene is very different today. Rittenhouse Square (18th and Walnut streets) is perhaps the most vibrant outdoor space in town. Originally called Southwest Square, the park was renamed after David Rittenhouse, a renowned astronomer and the first director of the United States Mint. Surrounded by luxury high-rises, active cultural spaces, and some of the best alfresco dining options in Philadelphia, Rittenhouse Square also gives its name to one of the city’s liveliest and loveliest neighborhoods. Visitors can admire stately Victorian homes on the surrounding blocks, enjoy upscale shopping along Walnut Street, and wile away pleasant hours people watching on a park bench or the tree-shaded grass.

Rittenhouse Square

Southeast (Washington) Square 

Less bustling but nearly as picturesque, Washington Square (named after President George Washington) forms part of Independence National Historical Park. This contiguous series of open space also contains Independence Hall (520 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA, 215.965.2305), the Liberty Bell Center (Sixth and Market streets, Philadelphia, PA, 215.965.2305), and other sites from the founding of the United States.

But while world historical events occurred just a few blocks away, old Southeast Square enjoyed a quieter life. Used as a grazing ground for livestock, the square was also a burial ground for poorer Philadelphians, British and American soldiers of the Revolutionary War, and victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic, which decimated the city in 1793. An untold number of bodies still lie beneath the park’s grass, making the square a haunting stop of the popular Ghost Tour of Philadelphia (Departs from Signers’ Garden at Fifth and Chestnut streets, Philadelphia, PA, 215.413.1997). In 1956, remains of one of the Revolutionary War dead were re-consecrated in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to those who died in the War of Independence.

Washington Square

Northwest Square (Logan Circle) 

A visitor to Philadelphia today trying to navigate the city using Penn’s 1683 map would be struck by one key difference: the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. A wide scenic boulevard that cuts diagonally across northwest Center City from LOVE Park (16th Street and JFK Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA) to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA, 215.763.8100), the Parkway is home to many of Philadelphia’s most impressive sights, including The Franklin Institute (222 N. 20th St., Philadelphia, PA, 215.448.1200), the Academy of Natural Sciences (1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA, 215.299.1000), and The Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA, 215.278.7200). In the middle of this boulevard is a circular park with views of all these architectural delights: Logan Circle.

Once a burial ground and site of public executions, Northwest Square took its present shape when the Parkway was carved out in the 1910s. This open, outdoor space now contains Philadelphia’s most famous water feature, Swann Fountain.

Swann Fountain

Northeast (Franklin) Square 

Renamed after Philadelphia’s favorite son, Franklin Square (200 Sixth St., Philadelphia, PA, 215.629.4026) is fabled to be nearby the site of Ben Franklin’s famous kite and key experiment. Part of Philadelphia’s finest neighborhood in the 19th century, the construction of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in the 1920s left the square isolated and run-down. Narrowly saved from demolition during the construction of I-676 in the 1980s, the park lay disregarded in the shadow of the bridge on-ramp until a major remodeling in the last decade saw it revitalized. Today it stands as a testament to Philadelphia’s regeneration—a key visitor attraction with a miniature golf course, historic carousel and fountain, playgrounds, and a surprisingly tasty hamburger stand close to Independence National Historical Park.

Franklin Square

Centre Square (City Hall) 

Situated at the intersection of Broad and Market streets, Centre Square is the only one of the original squares no longer solely a public space. Previously the site of an elegantly designed waterworks—part of one of the nation’s first urban water systems—Centre Square is now home to Philadelphia’s City Hall (1401 JFK Blvd., Philadelphia, PA, 215.686.1776). City Hall is modeled on the structure of a grand medieval palace, but updated in the ostentatious architectural style of the French Second Empire. Supported by walls 22 feet thick at the base, it is the tallest freestanding masonry structure and perhaps the largest municipal building in the world.

Atop its central tower stands a statue of William Penn gazing over the city he founded. For many years, Penn literally towered over the city he created: a gentleman’s agreement not to erect any building taller than the brim of Penn’s hat held until the construction of Liberty One Tower in 1985. Penn’s bronze visage is now shadowed by a 21st-century cityscape of skyscrapers, but his influence looms ever large: just look at any city map.

Philadelphia City Hall

Christopher Munden
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