Downtown Philadelphia: A Bit of History

As a long time Center City Philadelphia REALTOR®, I am often asked about the history of downtown Philly. Here are a few tidbits I find interesting about some of my favorite areas to help people buy Center City condos: Society Hill, Rittenhouse Square, and Delancey Place.

Society Hill ~

As you might think the name implies, it’s neither an elevation nor the site and badge of social position. It’s actually named for the Free Society of Traders to whom William Penn made liberal concessions of land and privileges.

A sawmill, a glasshouse, and a tannery made up its assets in 1683. In the 18th century, Society Hill was removed from the avenues of commerce and given the residential character it retains today.

It fell upon hard times in the 20th century, but today it is a model of urban renewal and urban amenity in a historic setting. Society Hill is now a vital part of the city and encompasses the land from the Delaware River to Washington Square and from Walnut Street to Lombard Street.

One of Society Hill’s many charms is that its homes are not museums, but are lived in by Philadelphians who love 18th and 19th century houses. And, people who enjoy the hassle-free lifestyle provided by living in Center City condominiums, which are spread fairly evenly throughout the area.

Rittenhouse Square ~

One of William Penn’s original five squares, Rittenhouse Square was known as the southwest square until 1825 when it was named for the astronomer-clockmaker, David Rittenhouse (1732-96).

This amazing man of universal talents — one of many in 18th century Philadelphia — was a descendant of William Rittenhouse, who built the first paper mill in America in Germantown. David Rittenhouse was at various times a member of the General Assembly and the State Constitutional Convention, president of the Council of Safety, president of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint. He was also Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania and inventor of the collimating telescope.

Since the first house facing the square was erected in 1840, Rittenhouse Square has always denoted quality. During its next century the Square kept its residential quality. In 1913, the architect Paul Cret, who was one of the men responsible for Benjamin Franklin Parkway and many of its buildings, designed the Square’s entrances, central plaza with the stone railings, pool and fountain. It was very prestigious to have lived on or even near the Square.

Even though almost all private homes are gone today, it is still a thing of prestige to live in one of Rittenhouse Square’s many high-rise Condominiums. There are several houses still standing in the area, but many have been converted into apartments and Brownstone-style Condo Buildings. Even though cooperative apartments and Philadelphia condominiums displaced private dwellings in the last three decades, some of the Old Guard still live on here — in Center City condos in the sky rather than family mansions.

Delancey Place ~

There are a myriad of things to see on Delancey Place:

• Caryatids (female statues) as mullions (vertical window separators) on the window of 1810 Delancey Place, perhaps the only ones in the city

• Acanthus leaves and grape design on the ironwork fence at 1823 Delancey Street

• Leaded and stained glass windows at 1821 Delancey Street

• The small garden with the iron fence at 1835 Delancey Street

From the vantage point of the garden we can have a fine view of 1900 Delancey Place, now the offices of a law firm. It is considered one of the finest townhouses designed by Frank Furness. The ornate decoration and the oval window above the entrance door give it a distinctive appearance in this age of austerity in architectural decoration. Be sure to observe the cherubim and seraphim on the pediments.