Return to Washington Square

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A Walker's Paradise

Washington Square, one of the five squares William Penn laid out in his 1682 survey of Philadelphia, was then simply called the southeast square, for Quakers did not believe in naming places after people. In 1833, however, it was renamed to honor the first President. The trees in Washington Square are older, wider-spreading and taller than those in Rittenhouse or Independence Squares, and the square itself has a more open, spacious quality — but then, it started as a pasture. Later the square served as a burial ground — potter's field — and many American and British soldiers of the Revolution lie here, along with victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

Washington Square
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Many of those Revolutionary War soldiers buried in the square died while being held as POWs in the Walnut Street Prison, formerly located on the northeast corner of the square. Both Colonials and British at various times controlled the jail. During the war both factions subjected captives at the Walnut Prison to deplorable conditions — no heat, lack of food, beatings. After the war, the jail's most famous prisoner was Robert Morris, who helped finance the Revolution — ironically he landed in debtors' prison. Washington did not forget Morris' loyal service and often visited the financier while he was jailed. And it was from this prison yard that Jean-Pierre Blanchard made his epochal balloon ascension in 1793 with Washington and hundreds of Philadelphians watching him. His flight was successful and he thus became our first aeronaut!

PSFS and Ayer Buildings
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To the north, the square is dominated by the Curtis Publishing Company building and on the west side of the square on the corner of 7th and Walnut Streets, was the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, which opened here in 1869. A 19th-century gray stone pile, it has been designated a historic building, as it is a fine example of the period.

Just behind it on 7th Street is the magnificent former headquarters of N.W. Ayer, once one of Philadelphia's greatest advertising agencies, now located in New York. The corner of 7th and Locust Streets is the home of W.B. Saunders Company, one of the world's largest medical publishers.

Lea & Febiger, Publishers
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On the south side of the square is a pseudo-Italian palazzo, which once belonged to Lea & Febiger, publishers. When Philadelphia was a great publishing center, Washington Square was "publishers' row" and, surprisingly, there is a good deal of publishing activity here today.

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Our first stop on the square is the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, a library founded in 1814 and housed in this beautiful Italianate building designed by John Notman. Its purpose is "to maintain a reference library for members and the public, a depository of rare books and periodicals of interest to scholars, to join actively in the cultural life of Philadelphia by participation in historical and educational activities and in the recognition of outstanding literary achievement in Philadelphia." Election to membership involves purchasing a share of stock which can descend through the stockholder's family in successive generations. Among their treasures are a copy in marble of Canova's reclining nude of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon's infamous sister, 3 handsome portraits by John Neagle, and a splendid Empire desk attributed to Michel Bouvier (Jackie O's ancestor) and thought to have been in Joseph Bonaparte's home.

Penn Mutual
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Now walk to the corner of 6th and Walnut to the Penn Mutual Life Insurance building. Note the Egyptian Revival facade of the building, designed by John Haviland, which was preserved after the old building was razed and a new tower built.

Curtis Publishing
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"The Dream Garden"

Directly across the north side of Washington Square is the Curtis Publishing Company building, formerly the home of The Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies' Home Journal and Country Gentleman magazines. Inside the lobby is "The Dream Garden," a spectacular glass mosaic of 260 different colortones made for Curtis by the Louis C. Tiffany Studios. It was based on an original painting by Maxfield Parrish. This building used to house the Norman Rockwell Museum, before the collection moved to the Atwater Kent Museum.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
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Returning to the square, on the other side of the fountain is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Southwest Corner
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Morley's former home

The southwest corner retains its character and a feeling of the 19th century. Here a block of four-story red brick mansions suggests the period of Henry James and Edith Wharton, but the buildings actually date from an earlier era. The author, Christopher Morley, once lived in the third house from the corner of 7th Street, facing the square, and for a time in later years it was known as "The Christopher Morley Inn." Morley confessed to a passion for city squares and he said no Walden sky was ever more blue than "the roof of Washington Square."

Although the house is no longer here, Marshal de Grouchy, one of Napoleon's 26 marshals, lived at 245 South 6th Street; the site is today occupied by a condominium. He had to flee France after his non-appearance at Waterloo — one of history's enigmas.

Holy Trinity Church (Washington Square)
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As we walk on 6th Street to Spruce we pass the graveyard of Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Opened for services in 1789 by a German congregation, the church established the first Catholic orphan asylum in America in 1797. In 1831 Stephen Girard, the banker and philanthropist, was buried in the cemetery, but his body was later removed to Girard College. There is a small area in the cemetery where Acadians are buried. About 1,400 of them came to Philadelphia from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1755 when the British took over French Canada. Called "the French Neutrals," they were housed in a cantonment at 6th and Pine Streets while waiting for transportation to Louisiana. Many are buried here, and this is "the little Catholic Churchyard in the heart of the city" in which the lovers of Longfellow's poem "Evangeline" are said to be buried.

"Rip Van Winkle"
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Directly opposite on the southwest corner of Spruce Street is the birthplace of Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), the American actor who made Rip Van Winkle famous. Jefferson, always loyal to the city of his birth, played a week's engagement every theatrical season either at Mrs. John Drew's Arch Street Theatre, razed in the 1930s, or at the Walnut Street Theatre, which still stands. Jefferson was the fourth member of that theatrical family to bear the name, and his daughter Margaret, friend and confidante of Asia Booth, was entrusted with the Booth family papers about Lincoln's assassination. Jefferson's granddaughter was Eleanor Farjeon, the playwright and well-known author of children's books.

Biddle House
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Biddle House
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Greek Revival example across the street

One of the great pleasures of walking in Philadelphia is looking at houses, not only 18th-century houses but all sorts of houses, for the city is a delight for architects and buffs alike. Continue along Spruce Street to number 715, the home of Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), banker, scholar, architectural aficionado, author, editor of the literary magazine The Port Folio, and in 1823, president of the Second Bank (see Historic District tour). Biddle believed that there were two great truths in the world — the Bible and Greek architecture. He wrote, "I would endeavor to obtain a perfect model of the simple, chaste, and pure architecture of the ancients."

Across Spruce Street from the Biddle mansion are some handsome Greek Revival fronts that were saved because of the strong and concerted protest of area preservationists. The buildings are owned by Pennsylvania Hospital and serve at present as offices.

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church
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At 8th and Spruce Streets, turn right to 256 and the classic front of St. George's Greek Orthodox Church. It was built in 1822 as St. Andrew's Episcopal, with John Haviland (1792-1852) as the architect. Haviland, incidentally, is buried in a crypt beneath the church. The iron fence is one of the most noteworthy in a city of handsome ironwork.

Reynolds-Morris House
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At 8th and Locust Streets, continue on the east side of the street to the Reynolds-Morris House at 225 South 8th. It was built by John Reynolds in 1787, as a date etched onto a cornerstone informs us. There was great activity in Philadelphia in the postwar years and a building boom of sorts was in progress. In 1817 Reynolds sold the house to Luke Wistar Morris, the son of captain Samuel Morris of the first City Troop. Built in Flemish bond of alternating red stretcher and black header brick (as so many of the houses hereabout were), it has a handsome doorway of notable proportions, set between fluted and quilled pilasters. There is a fine pediment over it and the lock and brasses on the door are worthy of note.

Although it is no longer standing, at 222, was the house where Amos Bronson Alcott's school stood. He was a renowned teacher and abolitionist. His daughter was Louisa May Alcott, author of "Little Women."

Musical Fund Hall
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Returning to 8th and Locust Streets, turn right toward 9th Street. At Locust and Darien Streets is the Musical Fund Hall, 806 Locust Street, designed by William Strickland in a rather severe style. The present facade is a much later one by Addison Hutton grafted onto Napoleon Le Brun's rebuilding on the front in 1847. William Makepeace Thackeray, who referred to the city as "grave, calm, kind old Philadelphia," gave six lectures here on the "English Humorists" in 1853 and a second series on "Charity and Humor" in 1856. Dickens lectured here in 1842. Among the others who performed in this hall were Ole Bull, the Norwegian violinist and Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale," whom Barnum brought to America. In June, 1856, the first Republican National Convention held its sessions in Musical Fund Hall, nominating the Pathfinder, John C. Fremont, as their candidate. The Hall has been converted into condominiums.

Mikveh Israel Cemetery
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Walking west on Spruce toward Pennsylvania Hospital, you come to one of the city's most hallowed spots — the redbrick-walled Mikveh Israel Cemetery, dating from 1740. It was the first burying ground for Philadelphia's Jewish community, and here in an unmarked grave lies Haym Salomon (c. 1740-1785), the Pole who placed his fortune at the disposal of the Colonies. First by working with the Sons of Liberty (and escaping from jail twice) and then as a broker, Salomon's role in the Revolution cannot be overestimated. When the U.S. Post Office honored him on a 10-cent stamp in 1975 they wrote: "Businessman and broker Haym Salomon was responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution." A stone commemorating Salomon is placed at the cemetery's entrance.

Most beloved of all who lie here is Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869), the benevolent model for the character Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe."

Bonaparte House
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Proceed to 9th Street, turn right, and proceed to 260 South 9th, the Bonaparte House. There will always be something extremely appealing and romantic about this dwelling because Joseph (1768-1844), elder brother of Napoleon and deposed king of Naples (1806-08), and of Spain (1803-13) lived here. When Joseph reached Philadelphia in September, 1815, after Waterloo, he was known as the Comte de Survilliers. On his way from New York to Washington to call on President James Madison, he stopped over in Philadelphia. The cautious Madison feared diplomatic repercussions and discouraged his arrival in the capital, so Joseph, with the help of the French immigrant Stephen Girard, made what arrangements he could in Philadelphia.

Walnut Street Theatre
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Before going south to Clinton Street, you can continue north on 9th to Walnut and visit the Walnut Street Theatre, the walls of which make it the oldest theatre in the U.S. It was first opened in 1808 as the New Circus, in 1811 a stage was added and it was renamed the Olympic, and the first play, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals, opened on January 1, 1812. In 1820 it was given its present name. Edwin Forrest made his debut here; Edmund Kean, Edwin Booth, the Four Cohans and Ethel Barrymore all played here. The interior was remodeled in 1920 and in the 1970s the facade was restored to look like the John Haviland original.

Clinton Street
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On reaching 10th and Clinton Streets, turn right to return to Spruce Street. Between 1003 and 1005, notice the distinctive iron gates. Some of the finest ironwork — balconies, gates, fences — was produced in Pennsylvania, and many who visit New Orleans do not realize that the ironwork decorating those houses came from here, too. Once our eye is trained to see the ironwork about the city, we find it at unexpected places.

Pennsylvania Hospital
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When the U.S. celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976, the Pennsylvania Hospital, founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond, marked its 225th birthday. Philadelphia is like that — many of its great institutions are older than the United States itself. Benjamin Franklin was the first president of the hospital. It was the first hospital in America. On a tour of the older part of the hospital you can see the Historical Library, the oldest collection of medical books in the United States, and also a similar collection of herbal and horticultural volumes. Housed in the center building and paneled in old, richly patinaed wood, the library has a graceful gallery running around all four sides. Here are found two paintings by a young Benjamin West and a chair of William Penn's. There are small wooden trunklike cases containing plaster casts of a fetuses which were used in the instruction of the medical students.

Leave the library, passing portraits of important doctors including Benjamin Rush, and climb the stairs to the circular room, the oldest clinical amphitheater in the United States. A glass skylight provided natural light for the operations, instead of the dome originally specified for the building. The first operation planned specifically for appendicitis was performed here as was the first gall bladder operation.

The treasures of the hospital are many and various, but perhaps none is of greater importance than the painting "Christ Healing the Sick" done by Benjamin West in 1817.

Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church
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On the corner of 6th and Addison stands Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1787 at this location by Bishop Richard Allen. The church occupies the oldest piece of ground in America continuously owned by African Americans. It was here that black Masonry was started in Pennsylvania. Bishop Allen and other blacks had held services at Old St. George's at five o'clock in the morning, but the day came when they were told they could use only the balcony. Allen led his flock out of St. George's and soon afterward purchased the lot at 6th and Addison. The present church, built in the 1890s, is the fourth to stand here. Allen's first church was an abandoned blacksmith's shed hauled by horses to the site. He did have support from Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Signer, who admired Allen's handling of those ill with yellow fever in the epidemic of 1793. The church also houses a museum.

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