Rittenhouse Square may be an emerald set in the heart of the city, but some of its beautiful and historic features look far from polished these days. The park's heavy use and lovely landscaping mask areas of disrepair. But look closer and you start to see that certain sections, particularly within the park's central oval, are in need of attention.
But this summer the Friends of Rittenhouse Square embarked on a major restoration project and lighting overhaul in partnership with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.
In late July a team of conservators and masons started restoring the park’s limestone balustrades at the four corner entrances and will begin on the balustrades surrounding the central plaza this fall. Alongside the masonry project, the park’s lighting is being upgraded for security and aesthetic purposes.
“What we’re trying to achieve is bring back the park to what it should look like, enhancing it slightly. I don’t think people will notice a huge change but I think they’ll [notice] the park really looks nice, especially at night,” Betsy Hummel, Friends of Rittenhouse Square president, said on a walk around the park in August along with board member Derek Freres.
At its core, Hummel said, the project is about making the park “more secure, make it more inviting, try to curb poor behavior.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Rittenhouse Square's redesign by Paul Cret. In Cret’s design, limestone balustrades frame the interior oval and four corner entrances. The balustrades were originally built of Indiana limestone, but over time sections were lost likely due weathering, accidents, or vandalism lending a gap-toothed look to several areas of the park. Some of these missing pieces were replaced with cast stone but others are simply gone.
This summer crews from Knapp Masonry, under the guidance of Materials Conservation Co., started removing the thick limestone slabs that rest on top of the balustrades to clean, repair, and reinstall original limestone pieces. Passersby will notice that whole sections will go missing temporarily.
“Where they can repair something on site or clean it onsite it will stay,” Freres said. “If there’s a baluster in good condition they’ll clean it and repin it. Where there’s a baluster that’s either fake or not historically accurate or in bad condition they’ll remove it and replace it with one that we’ve had made out of Indiana limestone.”
The park’s southwest entrance was completed first and it looks crisply refreshed. Of late crews have been working their way around the perimeter entrances and later this fall they will move on to the park’s interior.
In addition to the balustrade the limestone urns are being restored and the iron urns have been repaired.
In anticipation of the restoration work the park’s lamp posts were retrofitted with more efficient and directional LED lights. The new lighting is in part much about creating a safe park environment at night as it is about illuminating Rittenhouse Square’s assets.
Additional lighting will be installed to illuminate four dark spots in the park as well as highlight the park’s interior sculptures, reflecting pool and fountain, guard house, and gardener’s cottage ivy wall. Nearly all features will be down-lit.
The Friends of Rittenhouse Square has a contract with the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust to remove graffiti in the park - often on limestone elements that are being cleaned and restored. So in an effort to deter tagging of the freshly cleaned or brand new limestone, surveillance cameras were installed at locations in the park.
The total project budget is anticipated to be roughly $500,000, and most of the money has come through fundraising by the Friends of Rittenhouse Square. (The total cost remains unknown because the cost of the accent lighting is not yet finalized.)
Half a million dollars is a huge number for any park friends group to come up with, though it is not entirely surprising that the Friends of Rittenhouse Square was able to reach that sum given the park's overwhelming popularity and its well-heeled neighbors.
“This is hands down the biggest project the Friends have ever taken on. I don’t think any of us imagined that we’d be raising this kind of money,” Hummel said.“We’ve been raising money for about three years now. Most of the money has come through our annual fundraiser, which is the Ball in the Square." This year’s big 100th anniversary ball saw food and décor donated to help ensure that the Friends would be able to embark on this project in 2013.
The city has been a key partner in the masonry restoration and lighting upgrade projects. The Department of Parks and Recreation has been in close consultation with Friends of Rittenhouse Square along the way, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission and Art Commission gave their respsective approvals. The project also received a $100,000 allocation from the city capital budget.
Friends of Rittenhouse Square asked the park's neighboring buildings to support to the project since the park is such an important contributor to adjacent real estate values. About 80% of the surrounding buildings participated, accounting for about $100,000. Members of Friends of Rittenhouse Square were also asked to step up their annual contributions. Grant funding, including a $25,000 grant from the McLean Contributionship, helped round out the project’s funding.
Ashley Hahn is an independent writer with a background in historic preservation and city planning. She started Eyes on the Street for PlanPhilly in 2011 and was PlanPhilly's managing editor from 2015-2017. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. She is a Philadelphian by choice.