Rittenhouse Square - The Most Prestigious Square in Philadelphia

Rittenhouse Square

Rittenhouse Square - titled by its photographer, "A Perfect Day in Philadelphia". For a better view of this magnificent picture, just click directly on it to enlarge it.

Center City District - GREEN - Rittenhouse Square District

Added, Sunday, August 29, 2010...

Looking For Somewhere to Stay On or Near Rittenhouse Square? Check Out Our Comprehensive Guide to Rittenhouse Square Hotels

Not all Rittenhouse Square hotels are created equal. They can be divided, for the most part, into two distinct groups. One group consists of turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, which often did not start out as hotels, which have been converted into European-style, Old World hotels, with plenty of character. They can accommodate a relatively small number of guests, and some are bed-and-breakfasts. They are almost all directly on Rittenhouse Square, or just a block away.

The second group are more distant from Rittenhouse Square. They would be better off characterized as business hotels, that happen to be a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. They are tall, modern buildings with cutting-edge amenities and tons of rooms.

Neither group is inherently better than the other - it depends on your interest level.

To help you sort them out, we've created a detailed, comprehensive Guide to Rittenhouse Square Hotels - in which we compare and contrast the two groups. So it's worth checking out, as you plan your visit to Philadelphia...

Let's learn more about Rittenhouse Square, whose name has become synonymous with wealth and sophistication, even by Philadelphia standards.

In keeping with the Quaker desire for simplicity of names, the original five squares were named after directions: Northwest Square, Northeast Square, Center Square, Southwest Square, and Southeast Square.

Accordingly, Rittenhouse Square began its existence as Southwest Square - and maintained that name for a very long time. The original street plan was laid out when William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, and his surveyor, Thomas Holme, laid down the grid.

Southwest Square kept its mundane name for nearly a century and a half - 143 years, to be exact. However, in 1825, it was renamed after an individual by the name of David Rittenhouse.

David's father, William, was a German immigrant who constructed a successful paper mill. David was an astronomer, clockmaker, and patriot during the American Revolution - and so he was honored. (In an interesting mixture of naming honors, David also has a crater on the moon named after him, in tribute to his work in astronomy.)

As difficult as it is to imagine today, the area surrounding the Square was viewed as a virtual frontier early in the 19th century, as the city had not yet grown to its current size. However, with Philadelphia expanding rapidly, a member of the U.S. Congress, James Harper, had the prescient belief that the neighborhood would eventually be premier real estate.

Harper bought a large amount of property there, and constructed an impressive and august townhouse for himself at 1811 Walnut Street, around 1840. He divided the rest of the property into substantial lots, and since he had himself set the tone for the neighborhood as one of wealth and status, others followed suit. After Harper died, his townhouse became the home of the Rittenhouse Club.

The Friends of Rittenhouse Square deserve a great deal of credit for the maintenance and quality of the park. It is surrounded by luxury hotels, high-rise apartments, a Barnes & Noble bookstore, high-end restaurants, and the like. It also attracts a great number of dog walkers, given its central location and pleasant setting.

The Square is only a couple of blocks from Philadelphia City Hall and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway museums and attractions, so take a walk over...

Getting to Rittenhouse Square

Getting To Rittenhouse Square Via The Phlash

During the six months when the Phlash Trolley is operating - from May 1 to Halloween - you can do the same thing. Just get on the Phlash at any of its stops, and it will take you to Suburban Station, from where you can walk. If you'd prefer a more scenic walk, you could disembark from the Phlash at its stop at Logan Circle - and just head south, down any of the numbered streets, until you reach Rittenhouse Square.

Getting to Rittenhouse Square Via SEPTA City Transit Lines

SEPTA City Transit division offers a couple of different ways to get there.

SEPTA buses offer several routes to Rittenhouse Square. (There are also SEPTA trolley lines that run closer to the square, but we wouldn't recommend them for out-of-towners, as they're somewhat complicated to navigate.)

The Blue Line - Also Known As the Market-Frankford Line or "The El"

Particularly if you are coming from the historic area with the low-numbered streets, you can take the Blue Line to within a few blocks of Rittenhouse Square.

You want to get off the Blue Line at its 15th Street Station, which lets you off at 15th and Market Streets. From there, just walk four blocks west on Market, to 19th and Market, and turn left, and walk down two blocks to 19th and Walnut - and you're there. You can also walk down 15th Street two blocks to Walnut, make a right, and walk the four blocks over to 19th and Walnut.

The Broad Street Subway - Also Known as the Broad Street Line or the Orange Line

You can take the Broad Street Subway to either its City Hall Station - at Broad and Market Streets - or its Walnut-Locust station, which gives you the choice of exiting at either Broad and Walnut or Broad and Locust.

If you get off at City Hall, you walk five blocks over to 19th Street and turn left, then walk two blocks down to Walnut.

However, Walnut-Locust, one station south of City Hall, is closer, since you can walk over either Walnut or Locust for five blocks, and you've arrived.

Getting to Rittenhouse Square Via SEPTA Regional Rail

If you are coming from one of the outlying neighborhoods, or from the Pennsylvania or New Jersey suburbs, we'd recommend that you take SEPTA Regional Rail service - nearly every inbound train will stop at Suburban Station - located at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Once you're off the train, just head west for three blocks, until you reach 19th Street, and then turn left, heading south. Rittenhouse Square is just a couple of blocks down, at Walnut Street.

There are a lot of restaurants and nightlife in the Rittenhouse Square area, so if you're there late at night, you might be best served to take a cab back to Suburban Station to go home, the later it gets.

It should be noted that the Rittenhouse Square area is affluent and often has some foot traffic, and is safe, for the most part. However, be vigilant, as you should be in any urban environment. Particularly, the Square itself - especially after the restaurants, bars, and cafes close - can be somewhat desolate, so please bear that in mind.

The same advice would apply, if you're from out-of-town and you're out late - you might want to cab it back to your hotel, especially if you're not familiar with the geography and the hotel isn't in the Rittenhouse Square area.

Getting To Rittenhouse Square From Amtrak 30th Street Station

If you are traveling to Philadelphia via Amtrak, you probably will be disembarking at its major station in the region, the architecturally impressive 30th Street Station - located at 30th and Market Streets.

You can walk from there to Rittenhouse Square, at 19th and Walnut Streets, but it's a 12 block walk - ten blocks over to 20th and Market, and then two down to Walnut.

You can take a cab there from 30th Street - there are plenty of them there, immediately outside, and it's a short trip.

In addition, you can use your Amtrak ticket - valid on the same day - for trips to and from Suburban Station, as well as Market East Station, at 11th and Market Streets.

Here's how - when you come up from the Amtrak platform, follow signs for SEPTA Regional Rail. Once there, ask a SEPTA employee to direct you to a train going eastbound that will stop at Suburban Station (the preferred choice for Rittenhouse Square). Nearly all eastbound trains will stop there, so you shouldn't have to wait more than a few minutes.

Double-check with the conductor, before you get on - "Is this train going to Suburban Station?". If so, it's only a five minute ride to Suburban Station, the next stop. Then just follow the directions from Suburban Station, above.

View Rittenhouse Square in a larger map

A History of Rittenhouse Square

This history section is still under construction, so please be patient.

Beginnings - William Penn and the 18th Century

Penn - logically enough - assumed that there would be development of his street grid on the banks of both the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. When the original plan was laid out, there was a Delaware Front Street (now known to us as simply Front Street) and Schuylkill Front Street (now known to us as 22nd Street).

However, this did not turn out to be as easy to implement, as Thomas Holme made it look on paper. There were two natural obstacles to navigation (and hence settlement), neither of which were expected.

The first were the sandbars on the Schuylkill River, which made navigation on it more difficult than on the Delaware. The other were the marshlands on the riverbank, which made it cumbersome for vessels to dock.

Since the Delaware River was far more easy to navigate, economic and residential development on it took place on its waterfront, not that of the Schuylkill. And since the marshy land made it poor for farming, it remained largely rural and unsettled through the colonial period.

In 1770 - six years before the Declaration of Independence - a Baptist minister, Morgan Edwards, described the idyllic nature of what would become Rittenhouse Square:

"...not only convenient for the celebration of baptism but most delightful for rural sceneries. Hither the towns people in summer resort for recreation and entertainment... Round said spot are large oak, affording fine shade. Underfoot, is a green, variegated with wild flowers and aromatic herbs."

Nonetheless, there were some basic infrastructure improvements in colonial Rittenhouse Square. Market Street - then known as High Street - then as now, was the major commercial thoroughfare. And its junction with the Schuylkill was vital for commerce. The Middle Ferry moved both people and goods from the bustling seaport of Philadelphia, to and from upstate Pennsylvania.

As both passengers and ferry crew needed refreshments, a tavern was built as early as the 1690s - just the second decade of Pennsylvania's existence. After the steady growth of the 18th century, it was decided that a permanent bridge was needed - and so the first bridge crossing the Schuylkill was constructed by 1804, during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.

Spruce Street served as the de facto border, between civilization and beyond. There were two property issues which inhibited development, involving two east-west corridors between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.

The Free Society of Traders had title to the upper corridor, between Spruce and Pine Streets (which is why the eastern end of this corridor, near the Delaware, is still known as Society Hill).

As for the lower corridor, the Penn family - as proprietors of the colony - had deeded themselves everything, between Pine and Cedar Streets - the latter now known as South Street. As the owners of the colony, they took what they perceived as the best real estate, left it undeveloped, and waited for it to appreciate in value.

However, the political upheavals of the American Revolution had a strong effect on Southwest Square's development as well. In 1779, at the height of the war with Great Britain, the Pennsylvania Assembly decided that they would no longer permit the Penn family - who had ruled in the name of King George III - to keep the land unsettled for their own private benefit. Under the Divesting Act of 1779, they were given a cash payment and the Assembly took control of their strip, and began auctioning it off.

Lands owned by Loyalists often met the same fate, but it took decades for this massive property transfer to be completed. The last of these seized lots weren't sold until the 1820s, when the final auction took place to raise money for the construction of the latest city project, Eastern State Penitentiary, another must-see sight in Philadelphia, even if you only see the exterior.


As it turned out, the same marshlands that made Southwest Square problematic for farmers, made ideal conditions for the brick manufacturing process.

There was an enormous supply of clay, it was simple to manufacture kilns, and - most importantly - the rapidly growing city, concentrated towards the Delaware, meant that there was demand for many new homes and businesses - all of which needed a steady and reliable supply of bricks. And so brickmaking became the predominant industry in Rittenhouse Square, as foreign as that would seem today.

In 1796 - President George Washington's final year in office, and while Philadelphia was still the capital - a map by John Hills shows no fewer than 11 places for clay excavation. The eight acres of then-cheap real estate were bordered on three sides by brickmakers.

Ironically, its very undesirability helped it to grow; brickmaking was an unpleasant industry to be around, and shunting it off to the underdeveloped Southwest Square was a logical conclusion. It was close enough to the "real Philadelphia" to be useful for building construction, but far enough away that its side effects were minimized for Philadelphians.

Writing in 1844, John F. Watson wrote in his Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, about how Rittenhouse Square - then Southwest Square - looked back in 1809:

"Before houses were built [the fields in Rittenhouse] were open commons, clothed with short grass for cows and swine. 35 years ago [1809] so few owners enclosed their lots towards Schuylkill that the street roads of Walnut, Spruce, and Pine could not be traced by the eye beyond Broad Street... Roads traversed the commons at the convenience of the traveler, and brick kilns and their ponds were the chief enclosures or settlements that you saw."

Other unsavory industries joined the clay pits. By 1813, there was a white lead manufacturer at 15th and Pine Streets, and four blocks down at 19th street, there was a chemical manufacturer by 1819.

However, although it was still far from trendy, finer manufactures began to spring up among the clay of the brickmakers. The Tucker Porcelain Company was the manufacturer of Queensware, the first fine porcelain in America. By 1820, window glass was being produced by the the Schuylkill Window Glass Manufactory, near today's South Street bridge.

Source: Historic Rittenhouse: A Philadelphia Neighborhood, by Bobbye Burke, Otto Sperr, Hugh J. McCauley, and Trina Vaux.

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