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The Perfect Square

A History of Rittenhouse Square

Nancy M. Heinzen

Publication Year: 2010

Great cities and neighborhoods rise and fall, yet Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia has seized the imagination and envy of social climbers, urban planners, and novelists alike for two centuries. In The Perfect Square, Nancy Heinzen—a resident of Rittenhouse Square for over 40 years and an activist committed to its preservation—provides the first full-length social history of this public urban space.

One of the five squares William Penn established when he founded the city, the southwest-situated Rittenhouse Square has transformed from a marshy plot surrounded by brickyards and workers’ shanties into the epicenter of Philadelphia high society. A keystone of center city Philadelphia, it was once home to great dynasties, elegant mansions, and grand dames of the Victorian era. Today it is lined with million-dollar high-rise condominiums, where nouveau-riche entrepreneurs and descendants of ethnic immigrants live side-by-side.

Heinzen lovingly chronicles this urban space’s development and growth, illustrating that not only is Rittenhouse Square unique, but so is the combination of human events and relationships that have created and sustained it.

Painstakingly researched and generously illustrated with black-and-white photos from public archives, The Perfect Square will appeal to lay readers interested in history, to professional historians and urban planners, and to the thousands of new residents who have settled on or near Rittenhouse Square since the dawn of the 21st century.

Published by: Temple University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book began as a collaboration with Jonne Smith, a neighbor who shares my enthusiasm for Rittenhouse Square. Although she subsequently withdrew from the project, Jonne graciously permitted me to make use of the ideas, research, and writing that she contributed during the years we worked together, many of which are woven into the tapestry of this book. ...

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Prologue: Urban Oasis (2000)

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pp. xiii-xiv

On a perfect weekday evening in July, my husband and I sit in an outdoor dining alcove at a steakhouse in the Rittenhouse Hotel. The waning sun throws long slants of golden light into the treetops and along the facades facing west. Across the street on the west edge of Rittenhouse Square, couples stroll along the broad sidewalk, the better to see and be seen. ...

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1. Governor's Woods (1681-1825)

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pp. 1-14

William Penn saw little prospect that Quakers would be able to practice their religion freely in Restoration England. In this discouraged state of mind, in 1681 he prevailed upon King Charles II to pay off a debt to his father’s estate by granting Penn a vast colony on the west bank of the Delaware River, across from the Crown colony of West Jersey, ...

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2. The Early Years (1825–1844)

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pp. 15-32

The first residents around Rittenhouse Square in the late 1820s belonged not to the upper class but to the working class. Some of them made bricks in the nearby brickyards; others hauled coal from the barges on the Schuylkill; still others operated looms in their cellars or in nearby mills. ...

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3. Bricks and Mortar (1844–1863)

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pp. 33-58

In their four-story mansion on Walnut Street, James Harper and his family could survey the city in all directions from any one of the six windows in the cupola.1 So they were probably uniquely positioned on the nightmare evening of May 6, 1844, when the smoke of smoldering torches illuminated the shadowy forms of men on foot and on horseback, ...

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4. The Family Years (1863–1884)

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pp. 59-78

The Fourth of July fell on a Saturday in 1863, but anxiety over the battle caused the mayor to cancel all celebrations in Philadelphia. That night found Reverend Phillips Brooks and his Rittenhouse Square neighbor, Henry Cohen, huddled with fellow members of the Union League, an organization that had been founded a year earlier to support the Union cause. ...

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5. The Encroaching City (1884–1913)

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pp. 79-92

In March 1884, Philadelphia’s two legislative bodies, the Select and Common Councils, announced a “plan for the improvement of Rittenhouse Square.” In order to better accommodate the city’s growing traffic of horsecars, carriages, and ambulances, streets around the Square were to be widened to thirty-six feet, and seventy-four treasured street trees, ...

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6. Turning Point (1913–1915)

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pp. 93-106

Dr. J. William White, chairman of physical culture (that is, athletics) at the University of Pennsylvania, was an inveterate social creature who was not afraid to push the boundaries of social convention. White was known for what his friend and biographer Agnes Repplier called his “unaccommodating spirit” and his love of a uniform ...

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7. Skyline (1915–1945)

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pp. 107-130

The day after Cordelia Biddle’s wedding, as if to demonstrate that nothing had changed, Cordelia’s eccentric father, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, expropriated the Square for another mass quasi-public event. Major Biddle, as he was called, was a soldier and dilettante boxer whose YMCA-style Bible classes at the Church of the Holy Trinity offered a combination of athleticism and piety ...

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8. Things We Should Fight For (1945–1968)

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pp. 131-158

With the end of World War II, America’s postwar economy took off just as it had done following the Civil War eighty years earlier. The automobile whisked people out to Americans’ presumed suburban dream: a house and lawn on one’s own piece of land. Americans still worked downtown, but increasingly they commuted there from somewhere else. ...

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9. The Millennium (1968–2009)

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pp. 159-170

By the mid-1970s the Vietnam war was over and many members of the protest generation, having aged a few years in the meantime, turned their countercultural energies in other creative directions, such as art studio co-ops and a blossoming of innovative restaurants. Some former hippies were now providing nouvelle cuisine to those who had feared them just a few years earlier. ...


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pp. 171-190


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pp. 191-198


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pp. 199-203

E-ISBN-13: 9781592139903
Print-ISBN-13: 9781592139897

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2010