Washington Square — From Burial Ground to Aesthetic Park
In their plans for Philadelphia, William Penn and surveyor Thomas Holmes made sure to include five public parks. Penn wanted to make the city open and green, not crowded like European cities. Today, the southeastern square, now called Washington Square between Walnut and Locust and 6th and 7th Streets, is known as a peaceful park inside of Independence National Historic Park. However, Washington Square has undergone many changes throughout its history.
During the 1700s, Washington Square was known as Southeast Square and was located outside the main population area of the City. The neighborhood around the square served as housing for the poor black community. The area inside the square was used as an African American burial ground and potter’s field, or an area to bury strangers or the poor. Because green space in the city was limited, residents also used Southeast Square as a space to run animals and to hold cattle markets and camp meetings. During the 1770s Southeast Square was used as a burial site for the citizens and colonial troops of the American Revolution. In 1793, Southeast Square was used to bury victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic. In the same year, Jean Pierre Blanchard, considered the first person to fly, ascended in a hot air balloon from the Walnut Street Prison yard on the north side of Southeast Square.
In the 1790s, the nature of the square began to change. Land speculators bought land around Southeast Square, creating residential interest in the area. Philadelphia’s growing population pushed people to move and live closer to the square. A few years later, the square was closed as a cemetery, and the City planted trees and walkways to make the area more appealing to residents of the area. By 1815, residents demanded more improvements to the square in order to keep up with the beautification of surrounding neighborhoods. The cattle market closed, and French botanist Francois André Michaux along with English painter George Bridport converted the square into a public park by planting around sixty different types of trees within the park.
In 1825 Southeast Square was renamed Washington Square as a tribute to George Washington. In the same year, the City continued to improve the square by adding more walking paths throughout in order to open it as a public promenade. Now people were able to walk through the trees without trespassing on private property. To continue the improvements to Washington Square, the City added row housing around the square as well as gas lights and iron fencing inside of it in 1837.
Families, however, began moving away from Washington Square while businesses, especially publishers, stayed put. By the 1870s, Washington Square was home to Curtis Publishing, J.B. Lippincott, Lea & Febiger, and N.W. Ayer & Sons. Without families living in and taking care of the area, it began to deteriorate. Washington Square was in need of a face-lift. In 1882 the City covered the grass plots with new sod, provided underground drainage for the walkways, and added granite coping around the sides of the square. Businessmen in the area found it important to protect and preserve the park’s beauty and formed the Washington Square Improvement Association in the early 1900s.
In 1951 the National Park Service took responsibility of preserving and maintaining historic areas in Philadelphia, which included Washington Square. To promote further improvements, the City also bought property around the square to sell to private owners who promised to fix the structures. This action led to the addition of high-rises, which gave the square a more modern, rather than historic, feel.
In 1954, the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier was added as a way to keep Washington Square a living tribute to the American Revolution. Today the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier is guarded by a bronze statue of George Washington and the Eternal Flame. In 1975, a sycamore tree affectionately known as the Moon Tree was planted with seeds that were carried to the moon by astronaut Stuart Roosa on NASA’s Apollo 14 Mission. Washington Square was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
Throughout its history, Washington Square has been a reflection of the time and society around it. From potter’s field to idyllic park, Washington Square has evolved alongside the people of Philadelphia and adapted to their needs.
- Dallett, Francis James. An Architectural View Of Washington Square. Frome, England: Butler & Tanner, 1968.
- Double, Bill. Philadelphia's Washington Square. Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
- Rabzak, Denise R. Washington Square: A Site Plan Chronology, 1683-1984. Independence National Historical Park, 1987.