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Rittenhouse Square


Rafsnyder-Welsh House, ca. 1855 and 1894, 1923 Spruce Street, Rittenhouse Square Historic District, Philadelphia, PA, National Register

Photo: Rafsnyder-Welsh House, ca. 1855 and 1894, 1923 Spruce Street, Rittenhouse Square Historic District, Philadelphia, PA. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Photographed by User:Smallbones (own work), 2010, [cc-by-1.0 (creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed October, 2014.

"America's foremost designers worked in Rittenhouse, John Notman, Samuel Sloan, Thomas U. Walter, and Napoleon Brun before the Civil War, John McArthur, Frank Furness, Theophilus P. Chandler, Wilson Eyre Jr., Frank Miles Day, Horace Trumbauer, and Cope and Stewardson thereafter." [1]

The Rittenhouse Square Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Rittenhouse Square Historic District comprises a series of residential communities representing the historical development of the region surrounding the southwest square of Penn's original planned city. Like the ancient palimpsest, overwritten by different hands in different ages, the Rittenhouse district brings together the varying land uses characteristic of Philadelphia, rural farm; pre-industrial hand brick-making; commercial and maritime trades along the river front; suburban residence inland; and for the past century, a fashionable place of urban residence. With the exception of the first two uses, which have completely disappeared, all of the other uses are still very much in evidence, both in the urban form and as represented by changing architectural examples that span from the late 18th century to the present, encompassing the full range of buildings and styles from two-story rowhouses to multistory steel frame apartment houses, and from shops and offices to churches and schools. While houses and institutions are generally evenly dispersed across the community, Rittenhouse Square itself was the focus of the region's most intensive development, first for mansions, and later for skyscraper apartments. The unifying factors are the early and continuously residential character of the neighborhood, and the high quality of architectural design that pervades the entire area.

The boundaries of the Rittenhouse district demonstrate the varied history of the region, encompassing the small houses of the industrial and river trades community along the Schuylkill, the mansions of 21st and Spruce, and the tall, 20th century apartment houses of Rittenhouse Square. These communities have intermingled and coexisted for a century and a half, creating a complex urban mix that distinguishes this from other neighborhoods in the city. Its variety, moreover, is not found merely at the periphery, but is scatted throughout. Tongues of elite houses extend to 24th Street along Delancey; fingers of workingmen's rows line the narrow mid-block streets along other parts of Delancey, Van Pelt, Waverly and Chancellor Streets. Finally, there is added richness in the wide range of scale and use of the other building types that support this community. Schools, churches, shops and restaurants add spice to this urbane, generally red brick region. The apparent variety of the Rittenhouse district, supported by the historical differentiation of material, scale, style, social class and building function must not conceal the essential unities that make this a cohesive and complete district. Those unities formed the basis for the description of the district and included:

  1. The spatial cohesion of the region around Holme's southwest square, with the entire district being within six block of the square.
  2. The functional unity of the region, which for a century and a half has been primarily residential.
  3. The architectural unity of the region is fostered both by the residential use and scale, apparent in the typical three- and four-story flat facaded brick houses, but also by the high quality of architectural design of the neighborhood.
  4. Finally, the social unity of the region, fostered by a century of expansion as the only continuously successful fashionable urban neighborhood in the city's history.

The resulting district generally includes the blocks from Walnut to Pine and from 15th to 24th Streets, with extensions to the north to include the institutional center of the Swedenborgian, Lutheran and Unitarian churches. Excluded from the district is the zone near City Hall and the railroad station which became commercial, and runs essentially on a diagonal from 18th and Walnut southeast to 15th and Pine.

Spatial Organization

Though united, as noted above, the Rittenhouse district can be further described as a hierarchically and chronologically organized neighborhood. Because it merely continued the path of development of elite housing that extended west along Walnut, Locust and Spruce streets, the earliest houses are generally grouped along the eastern border. On 15th Street, below Locust, gable-roofed, three and one-half-story brick houses with marble bases are an extension of the still active Greek Revival designers who had worked east of Broad Street. The bracketed Italianate styles of mid-century are common west of 17th Street; the asymmetrical, polychromed, frequently Gothic detailed high Victorian designs are most often found west of 20th Street. The same westward progress also marks the position of the principal ecclesiastical and institutional buildings. St. Mark's Protestant Episcopal church on the 1600 block of Locust Street preceded Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square (1856), which in turn sponsored Holy Trinity Chapel at 22nd and Sprice (1874).

Simultaneously, eastward movement was occurring from the Schuylkill River. In the 1830s the banks became unloading areas for the lumber, brick, stone and coal trades. Storage yards a block or two inland provided the raw materials for the construction of the Rittenhouse neighborhood, and by the 1870s became the sites for further development. Between the river and the yards were the houses of the dock workers, typically two and one half story, Flemish bond brick houses, some of which form the edge of the Rittenhouse Square district. They recall, but simplify, the detail of the earliest houses on the east side of the district. Similarly scaled houses extended eastward along Pine and Locust to 24th Street, and along Cypress and Panama Streets to 19th Street, significantly penetrating into the Rittenhouse neighborhood, and providing housing for the population that supported the wealthy households.

Overlaying the two principal lines of development was the hierarchical organization of space, which reflected the value of real estate in Philadelphia. That hierarchy generally runs from the south edge of the district, where typically smaller houses occur, towards the middle, where the larger houses are found, with the most important in the immediate vicinity of Rittenhouse Square, or other smaller development nodes, including the vicinity of St. Mark's Protestant Episcopal Church, on the 1600 block of Locust Street, and the blocks immediately adjacent to St. James Episcopal Church at 22nd and Walnut. Another center near the Unitarian and Swedenborgian churches remains largely intact at the northwest corner of the district.

Ecclesiastical centers reflect a survival of older organizing patterns of the city, but were also caused by the connection between church donations and real estate speculation in the nineteenth century. For instance, among the organizers of Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church were Lemuel Coffin, John D. Jones, John Rice and Charles Harbart. They were all involved in the building trades, as developer, architect, builder and lumberyard operator, respectively. And it was not a coincidence that the developer, Coffin, led the way, first on the building committee, and ultimately as church warden, for his nearby property holdings undoubtably benefitted by the new church's proximity. Nor was it chance, a decade later, that Coffin helped found Holy Trinity Chapel, at 22nd and Spruce, near other property holdings of the Coffin family.

These larger patterns of development adhered to the original organizational principles of the old city in one more area: the principal houses tended to be erected on the major east-west streets, i.e. Walnut, Spruce, Locust and Pine, while the secondary east-west streets, with the notable exception of certain blocks of Delancey Street, tended to be the site of workingmen's housing, stables, and the rear buildings of the mansions. The transitional scale occurred on the north-south numbered streets, from 15th to 21st, with one notable exception, 22nd Street, where houses tend toward the scale and prominence of those on Spruce Street.

Architectural Development

Though development of the Rittenhouse neighborhood springs from two sources, the river-based industry and the extension of the city from the east, it was the latter force which provided the principal impetus. And, because the new residents tended to be the elite families of old Philadelphia, it could be anticipated that they would bring their architects and their social institutions with them. The consequence was the establishment and perpetuation of social and architectural continuities in the Rittenhouse neighborhood that visually set it apart from other regions of the city.

The earliest important designers include John Haviland on Rittenhouse Square and on Chestnut Street between 15th and 16th Streets; Thomas U. Walter on the south side of the 1500 block of Pine Street; at mid-century John MacArthur Jr. built the Repplier house on the west side of the square, and shortly thereafter provided plans for the West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church at 17th and Spruce; Samuel Stone's Italianate mansion for Joseph Harrison (demolished) on the east side of the square, and Harrison Row (also demolished) to the east along Locust Street toward the 17th mark the level of architectural sophistication of the early clients. That middle-brow group was quickly superceded by John Notman, who with his pupils and their successors shaped the region until the early twentieth century. Notman's work began with the imposing brownstone Gothic revival St. Mark's Episcopal Church (1847) on Locust Street. Four years later, the Calvary Presbyterian congregation retained him to design a church a block to the east on the 1500 block of Locust Street. That was shortly followed by the brownstone Romanesque facade of Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square (1856-59), remembered, as well, as the charge of the Reverend Phillips Brooks before his departure for another Trinity Church, by Richardson, in Boston. Houses on Locust and Walnut in the Renaissance style further added the Notman stamp to the community, pushing it in the direction of the refined, upper class taste which Notman learned from his training in Scotland in the 1820s.

The same anglophilic taste continued in the work of his successor firms, headed by George W. Hewitt, who later merged with John Fraser and Frank Furness (Fraser, Furness and Hewitt, 1867-1871; Furness and Hewitt, 1871-1876), before striking out on his own. Both Furness and Hewitt demonstrated an awareness of current English fashion, especially the so-called Ruskinian Gothic which they adapted to the typical large city house plans, for Henry McKean, Richard Ellis, Thomas Hockley, Travis Cochran, John C. Bullitt and others. Working simultaneously was the equally well-connected Theophilus Chandler, who, though from Boston, married Sophie DuPont, and designed the houses for Dr. Hutchinson on 22nd Street, and the mansion for James Scott (son of the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad) at 21st and Walnut. In turn, their pupils, Walter Cope and John Stewardson, adapted the turn-of-the-century revival styles to the taste of Philadelphia's elite, in particular, Thomas McKean.

Paralleling the commissions to important architects, whose work set the tone for the community, are the developers' rows that filled out the bulk of the region. These were the investment projects of John McCrea and family, Lemuel Coffin, trading as Coffin and Altemus, among others. It was their bold initiative that created the handsome red brick unified block fronts that characterize the district. Especially noteworthy are the McCrea developments lining both sides of the 1800 and 2000 blocks of Delancey. Varying house widths, some deeper and two registers wide, others shallower and three registers across the front, reflect different plans, and relatively higher costs.

Coffin and Altemus, and builder Isaac Budd, both working on the 2000 block of Spruce Street, produced monumental stone facaded houses, whose incised ornament betrays their debt to contemporary fashion -- particularly Christopher Dresser's The Art of Decorative Design (1862). These larger stone houses, while occurring with less frequency, from the coloristic counterpart to the red brick houses, and mark more costly buildings that reflect the developing consumer culture which replaced the old communal values of the eighteenth century city.

The parallel courses of architect and developer designed houses that typified the Rittenhouse district before the Centennial gradually shifted in the 1880s and 90s to solely architect designed houses, on scattered sites. Few large blocks became available, save at 23rd and Locust. They not only represented the triumph of a new value system, but also represented the loss of work opportunities for the old river community. In the 1890s, the mansions, scattered from one side to the other of the district, were universally architect designed by the generation of post-Victorian architects. Cope and Stewardson have been mentioned earlier. Wilson Eyre, Jr.'s Neill and Mauren double houses, the Harrison and the Bradbury houses are important essays in the transition from brick Gothic toward a freely created style based on materials, expression of function, and the remembrance of historical detail. Similar designs by Frank Miles Day (Yarnall House, 17th and Locust; Wood House, 245-247 S 17th Street, and a small development on the 1900 block of Pine Street) and important houses by out-of-towners, Peabody and Stearns, for Mrs. Fell/Van Renssalaer, among others, continue the more traditional mode of academic historic revivals.

The post-World War I era is represented by a significant group of apartment buildings that replaced so many of the first generation mansions, especially around Rittenhouse Square. Ralph Bencker's Art Deco Rittenhouse Plaza (1926, on the site of Haviland Roberts mansion); Horace Trumbauer's Lombard Romanesque Chateau Crillon (1928, on the site of MacArthur's Repplier house); Zantziger, Borie and Medary's Art Deco Penn Athletic Club (1929, on the site of Joseph Harrison's house), and others significantly changed the scale of the heart of the region. Where only the spires of Holy Trinity, St. Mark's and the West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church had towered above the trees, now they in turn were dwarfed by the changed technology of the steel frame skyscrapers.

The 1920s saw another important shift which had further impact on the Rittenhouse area. Instead of replacing the tiny, older houses on the back streets, families of the post-war years found charm in the narrow streets, small windows, and traditional forms. Rather than building new rows, the old houses were renovated, with tell-tale casement windows and Spanish stucco detail on Panama, Rittenhouse and the western blocks of Pine Street. Architect WIlliam Koelle specialized in such adaptations for the cream of old Philadelphia society.

The failure of International Modernism to receive the affection of any but the most aesthetically inclined, and the parallel trend toward suburban residence in the 1930s left few buildings of modern design in the region. George Howe's alteration to the Speiser house on the 2000 block of Delancey (1933) is the principal low-rise landmark.

On the other hand, the fact that Rittenhouse remained continuously fashionable has meant that its buildings have suffered few of the indignities of other neighborhoods. No large tracts have been emptied and reconstructed within the boundaries of the district, because no great fires have occurred, and because the houses have remained within the general parameters of elite taste. The consequence is a continuous urban fabric, which, though changing in its residential pattern, as large houses are converted to apartments and offices, presents the visage of half a century ago. Fortunately, too, its principal churches and institutional buildings remain as accents to the community. At the same time, new development pressures, reflecting the low intensity of use of the land immediately adjacent to center city, threatens immediate and dramatic transformations that could forever undo the civilized achievement of 150 years.

Significance

The Rittenhouse District is a cohesive and essentially intact Victorian and twentieth century neighborhood reflecting and architectural and social history of Philadelphia. Within its confines are the unified red brick blocks of houses along Pine, Delancey and Sprice streets that are the stereotype of the Quaker City. However, those rows are spiced with the architectural landmarks of a century of Philadelphia's most important designers: Thomas U. Walter, John Notman, John MacArthur, Frank Furness, George Hewitt, T.P. Chandler, Cope and Stewardson, Wilson Eyre and George Howe among others. Their principal urban institutional and residential commissions are scattered through the district, providing a record of the architectural heritage of one of America's principal architectural centers. Obviously too, the buildings have been the homes of the leaders of the Quaker City, from architects (Chandler, Notman), religious leaders (Phillips, Brooks, William Henry Furness), artists (Rudolph Serkin, Leopold Stowkowski), as well as the social and commercial elite. Other buildings have housed Philadelphia's important social, cultural, ecclesiastical and educational institutions and associations. It is that extraordinary concentration of landmarks, institutions and unaltered streetscapes, spanning the past century and a half and continuing until the present, that makes the Rittenhouse District unique.

The Rittenhouse Square neighborhood marks the survival of a major portion of the Penn-Holmes plan for Philadelphia into the 20th century. The original city squares have become strongly differentiated, reflecting the growth and urban structure of Philadelphia, with the Washington Square neighborhood developing as a commercial zone; the Franklin Square region principally oriented toward industry and transportation; the Logan Square zone ultimately containing a mix of civic and institutional uses, while Rittenhouse Square has been residential for most of its history. Though it has been primarily residential, the Rittenhouse district should not be stereotyped as merely another elite neighborhood. Instead, this community was the joint creation of working class and elite groups that collided and intermingled east and west of 20th Street, creating pockets of wealth in working neighborhoods and pockets or workingmen's housing as far east as 16th and Rittenhouse Streets. Moreover, it is apparent from building records that these communities shared more than their proximity: they even share builders, developer teams and architectural styles. Evidence of this can be seen in the 1700 blocks of Pine and Addison Streets, which were among the early projects of builder JohnMcCrea. Rittenhouse thus continues the 18th century community forms of work near residence into the 19th century, even as it represents the new urban form of work separated from residence, but joined to the old business district by the early mass transit system of horsecar lines.

The second area of importance of the Rittenhouse district is as a setting for the works of Philadelphia's most sophisticated and talented architects from the 1830s to the present. Tough all of the city's architects worked in the region, the principal designers were those associated with elite families and institutions. From the 1840s Rittenhouse showed an exceptional concentration of Episcopal churches, later joined by the major Unitarian and Swedenborgian congregations, which with their parishioners formed the bulk of the region's clientele. Their architects were typically of similar social standing, being mostly residents of the Rittenhouse neighborhood (Chandler, Notman) or the older elite community to the east (Eyre, Furness, Day). Here, they worked comfortably within the various architectural vocabularies of the day, but unlike the architects of North Philadelphia, they followed the formal and theoretically disciplined notions of John Ruskin, producing an architecture of structured realism and material honesty. It is this which limited the frequent excesses of 19th century architectural taste, and ultimately contributed to the long term survival of Rittenhouse; for unlike North Philadelphia, which built at the outer limits of contemporary taste, this clientele demanded sufficient conservatism so that the region ultimately attained a continuity and unity rare in 19th century American cities. As such it provides important lessons for modern city planners.

This is not to say that Rittenhouse is dull or boring. Any community that has houses by Furness, Hewitt and Chandler on the same block (100 block S. 22nd) and whose institutions were designed by Chandler, Furness, Henry Sims, and James P. Sims, as well as Cope and Stewardson, could not fail to be architecturally interesting. Indeed, as testimony to the social variety mentioned earlier, every major architect of the 19th and 20th centuries has worked in Rittenhouse, including those principally associated with the nouveau riche North Philadelphia, (Stephen D. Button, Willis Hale, Horace Trumbauer and William B. Powell).

No less interesting has been the record that Rittenhouse provides of the continuity of the great Philadelphia families. The McKeans built two generations of mansions on the same sites at the west end of the 1900 block of Walnut Street, (the first by Frank Furness and Hewitt, the second by Cope and Stewardson), while generations of Biddles, Cadwaladers, Newbolds and Whartons have lived at Spruce, Delancey and Locust streets.

Finally, because of the continuity of families, the conservatism of architectural taste, and the proximity of the region to work, Rittenhouse has suffered none of the great redevelopments of land use characteristic of American urban history. With few, notable exceptions, there are no major streetfronts which have been built on more than once. Though a facade may have been altered or a new house or two inserted, still the original decisions of the 1840s, 50s and 60s are clearly apparent. Only the Rittenhouse Square edges have market pressures and the scale of open space created by the park caused multiple generations of building, (typically, two 1850s houses replaced by sympathetically scaled and designed 1920s-80s tall buildings). Even there, however, the major landmarks, from Holy Trinity Church and the Rittenhouse Club to small houses survive, and with the Art Deco apartment houses provide evidence of the entire development of the square. The result is the rare persistence in one neighborhood of the continuing fabric of residential development, encompassing all social strata over nearly two-thirds of the city's history. That neighborhood is now threatened by changing economic pressures as developers seek less intensively utilized land near the business district.

Fortunately, the Rittenhouse community is supported by a variety of organizations whose activities have created an awareness of its significance, so that it now effectively competes with Colonial Society Hill for public attention. With the assistance of the Center City Residents Association and the Center City Foundation, the potential for the preservation of the district is significantly enhanced.

  1. Trina Vaux, ed., Historic Rittenhouse: A Philadelphia Neighborhood, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985

School District: Philadelphia

Rittenhouse Square Map

Street Names
15th Street South • 16th Street South • 17th Street South • 18th Street South • 19th Street South • 20th Street South • 21st Street South • 22nd Street South • 23rd Street South • 24th Street South • Broad Street • Chadwick Street South • Cypress Street • Delancey Street • Hicks Street South • Latimer Street • Locust Street • Manning Street • Panama Street • Pine Street • Rittenhouse Square • Route 611 • Smedley Street South • Spruce Street • St James Street • Van Pelt Street South • Walnut Street • Waverly Street

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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