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No 'Squares' on the Square

November 5, 2009 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

When I was a child, there was no locale in this city that represented White Anglo-Saxon Protestant privilege more than Rittenhouse Square. The staid-looking buildings that surrounded the park back then, along with the lovely booths, fountains, sculptures and pathways that marked the leafy interior, seemed to whisper to a young Jewish boy like me: "This terrain is not for you. Even if you step inside and enjoy it, it will never truly be yours. It belongs to someone else." Back then, I didn't really know who that someone else was, but he or she or they definitely existed in some rarified world inaccessible to me, it seemed, at that time or in the future.

But that Protestant veneer began to crack once the country went through the upheavals of the 1960s, and it has loosened considerably every decade since then. Doubtless, some of us can still feel the old WASP aura at times, especially in the fall, when the light cuts through the well-manicured trees and hits the broad, grassy expanses at a certain heartbreaking angle. But the square does really belong to all Philadelphians nowadays, no matter the nature of its storied past.

Still, this "privileged" terrain is a Rittenhouse Square of myth. In actuality, it was never solely a patrician province, so to speak, even at its beginnings, and definitely not so when the majority of Philadelphians might have believed it to be true -- from the mid- to late 19th century on. I know this to be a fact because the family I married into -- part of which included the two Lit brothers, Sam and Jake, of department-store fame -- lived on the square in the early years of the 20th century once high-rise apartment houses started dotting the area.

All of this fascinating and varied history is now clearly laid out in The Perfect Square: A History of Rittenhouse Square by Nancy Heinzen, published by Temple University Press. Any born-and-bred Philadelphian who still harbors an abiding love for this very livable city will find more than just a nostalgic ride in this compact, lovingly rendered work.

It All Began With Mr. Penn

Initially, of course, what was eventually "christened" Rittenhouse Square began in the imagination of one man, William Penn, who plotted out, with the help of his deputy governor, Thomas Holme, the nature of his "original rectangular city," which the author tells us, was expected to stretch "some two miles from the Delaware River on the east to the Schuylkill River on the west, and from Vine Street on the north to Cedar Street (now South Street) on the south."

The centerpiece of the map Holme created back in London to influence investors in this new city's "viability" was "a central 'Square of 10 Acres.' " In addition, there would be four smaller squares, each of eight acres, that were to anchor "each of the city's four quadrants, each square named accordingly: Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest," writes Heinzen.

But it wasn't until 1825, 142 years after Holme first drew up his map, that the neighborhood squares -- all but Center Square -- were renamed in honor of accomplished Americans, which Heinzen notes was "a departure from the Quaker precept against personal vanity." Exactly why the members of Philadelphia's two City Councils chose to name Southwest Square for David Rittenhouse remains unknown.

According to the author, David Rittenhouse "never saw or even knew of Southwest Square; his German Mennonite ancestors (originally called Rittenhausen) had first settled several miles north of Philadelphia in Germantown." His merits, though, were beyond repute. Rittenhouse had been one of the city's most accomplished 18th century individuals. A master clockmaker, he was also a statesman, first director of the U.S. Mint and president of the American Philosophical Society.

The first residents around the Square in the late 1820s were not members of the upper classes, but came from the working class. Some made bricks; other hauled coal; still others operated looms in their cellars or in the nearby mills.

The first grand house was built in 1837 by Philip Physick, son of the famous physician, Philip Syng Physick, who was known as the "father" of American surgery. Following the great doctor's demise, Philip fils used his inheritance "to buy five contiguous lots at the northwest corner of 19th and Walnut streets," and built himself a Greek Rival mansion after a design by noted architect John Haviland. To build a house "cheek and jowl" next to mills and similar workplaces was a daring move, and also a prophetic one.

James Harper, a brickyard owner on the north side of Walnut Street, between 18th and 19th streets, would "build" upon the younger Physick's idea -- something along the lines of early gentrification -- by becoming the square's initial real estate developer. Harper sold property to the area's first significant Jewish resident, businessman and civic leader Henry Cohen. "His grandfather, a linguist and rabbi whose congregants included Philadelphia's famous Gratz family, had arrived in America from England in 1792, a year before the young James Harper."

The Cohens lived on the south side of the square, where they were soon joined by Francis M. Drexel, an Austrian painter who come to Philadelphia in 1817 and went on with his sons to banking prominence.

The area's real popularity didn't begin until after the Civil War.

Heinzen tells us that at this time the neighborhood "abounded" in "parlor" schools for girls, often run by "single ladies." One of these came from a prominent Philadelphia Jewish family. "Miriam Gratz Mordecai, who lived on the south side of the Square, was the daughter of Major Alfred Mordecai (an 1823 graduate of West Point), niece of the philanthropist Rebecca Gratz (immortalized as the model for a character in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe) and herself a board member of the Hebrew Sunday School Society. The school run by Miriam and her sister functioned first at 19th and Spruce streets and later on Delancey Place."

It wasn't until high-rise apartments started appearing around the square that other Jews began moving in. That's when the Lit brothers took up residence on 19th Street. But they and my wife's other forebears must be turning over in their graves because Heinzen calls them "Eastern European Jewish immigrants." The Lits (who married the Van Baalens) were German and Dutch Jews who were part of the second wave of Jewish immigration to the United States that began after 1848 (the first had included people like the Gratzes and the Mordecais in the 18th century). The mass immigration of Eastern European Jews didn't begin till 1880, and continued to 1920 or so when immigration law became more restrictive.

The Lits were like the Snellenbergs and the Gimbels, other Philadelphia department-store families, who had come to the United States several decades before the Civil War. These Jews were part of the group that also founded the newspaper you're now reading, in addition to the Locust Club and that other great Jewish institution, Philmont Country Club.

It's too bad that Heinzen disturbed their eternal rest yet again. I gave them their first jolt, nearly 37 years ago, when my wife said "I do" to a real live Eastern European Jew who also grew up on the wrong side of the city. But that's a whole other Philadelphia Jewish story.

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