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Independence Square, State House Square

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1759; 1769–1770, Samuel Vaughan; 1914 perimeter wall rebuilt, Emlyn Stewardson. Bounded by S. 5th, S. 6th, and Walnut sts.

The State House Square survives as a rare eighteenth-century urban space. A portion was acquired in 1759 and the remainder was dedicated as open space in 1769; the perimeter wall was built in 1759, extended in 1770, and lowered somewhat in 1812. It was the first landscaped public grounds of the city and, as is evident in William Birch's Views of Philadelphia (1800), contrasted with the unkempt appearance of the city's other squares. Here on July 8, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first read to the public. Christopher Marshall recorded the day in his diary: “Warm sunshine morning. At eleven, went ... in a body to State House Yard, where, in the presence of a great concourse of people, the Declaration of Independence was read by John Nixon [the Sheriff of the county and a member of the Council of Safety]. The company declared their approbation by three repeated huzzas. The King's Arms were taken down in the Court Room, State House at the same time.”

In contrast to the bombastic mall across Chestnut Street that now stretches to the limits of the old city, State House Square is circumscribed by the scale of a city square and is appropriate to the size of the eighteenth-century buildings. Its grounds were laid out by Samuel Vaughan, the designer of Philosophical Hall ( PH12.3), and included one hundred elm trees and ninety-two hollies, purchased from John Bartram and Son, horticultural suppliers. A central walk led from the Walnut Street gate to the tower door of the State House while winding paths followed the perimeter. Most remarkable is the effect of the slight elevation of the grounds within the low surrounding brick walls, giving a sense of quiet and separation that transcends its urban location.

To the south of the square at 530 Walnut Street is Mitchell/Giurgola Architects’ Penn Mutual Building (1975), a skyscraper that preserved the marble Egyptian Revival facade of John Haviland's original building for the Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company (1830; 1902 doubled by T. P. Chandler) on the site as a thin planar object, one of the first so-called facadectomies, a controversial device in much subsequent historic preservation but used elegantly and imaginatively here. Independence National Historical Park extends east to 3rd Street, encompassing surviving and recreated buildings of the Revolutionary city. Unfortunately, its open spaces were formed at the expense of some of Philadelphia's most interesting commercial buildings—and with the loss of urban context that amplifies the character and importance of some of the park's buildings. Carpenters’ Hall ( PH12.7), for example, was originally shoehorned into the middle of its block, making it a better site for debating revolution than it would now appear, a piece of garden architecture in the midst of an open landscape.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas
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Citation

George E. Thomas, "Independence Square, State House Square", [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/PA-02-PH12.6.

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of PA vol 2

Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, George E. Thomas, with Patricia Likos Ricci, Richard J. Webster, Lawrence M. Newman, Robert Janosov, and Bruce Thomas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 58-59.

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