on-line book icon

table of contents

National Historical Park
NPS logo

Independence Square
Independence Square in 1838, as seen from the steeple of Independence Hall.
Lithograph by J. C. Wild, 1838. Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Independence Square

Until the 1820's, Independence Square was known variously as "State House Yard" or "State House Garden." Originally the land bounded by Chestnut, Walnut, Fifth, and Sixth Streets had been set aside by William Penn as "bonus lots." To each purchaser of a substantial farm or "country lot," Penn also gave a city lot as a bonus. The pieces in this particular square were given to Welsh Quakers who settled in Radnor Township.

By the time the ground along Chestnut Street was acquired to erect the State House, most of the original owners had already sold their parcels. By deed dated October 15, 1730, the first lot on the square was purchased by William Allen for the use of the Province. Within the next 2 years the entire Chestnut Street frontage, extending halfway back to Walnut Street, had been secured. Construction of the State House began in 1732.

The desire to provide a proper setting for the State House was evident from the beginning. In the year that the building was begun, the Assembly considered leveling the site and enclosing it with a board fence "in order that Walks may be laid out, and Trees planted, to render the same more beautiful and commodious." As far as is known, however, the landscaping was not carried out until considerably later. On February 20, 1736, the Assembly determined on a most important policy. An act vesting the State House and its grounds in trustees provided: "That no part of the said ground lying to the southward of the State House as it is now built be converted into or made use of for erecting any sort of buildings thereon, but that the said ground shall be enclosed and remain a public open green and Walks forever." This provision has been retained as a guiding principle in the development of the square save for occasional deviations. On August 9, 1739, the Assembly ordered "that Materials be prepared for encompassing the Ground with a Wall in the ensuing Spring . . ." Two years later a portion of this wall was taken down and rebuilt with a shingle cornice added to carry off rain water.

Independence Square
Independence Square from Walnut Street gate, looking north.
Ink sketch from an early photograph.

Purchasing the remainder of the square was delayed nearly four decades. On May 14, 1762, the Assembly directed that the balance of the land be obtained, and by 1769 the necessary lots had been acquired. In 1770, the Assembly enclosed the whole square with a brick wall 7 feet high, pierced at the center of the Walnut Street front by a tall arched gateway with solid wooden doors.

At this time the square contained the State House, with its wings and wooden sheds, and a small wooden platform erected in 1768. The latter was constructed at the instigation of the American Philosophical Society for observing the transit of Venus across the sun on June 3, 1769. It is believed that the observatory stood south of the State House.

Although landscaping the State House Yard had been long discussed, nothing of consequence appears to have been done in this regard during the Colonial period. At the time of the American Revolution, the square apparently was more or less barren, with no planned landscaping or system of walks. Cannon, which must have been a prominent feature of the yard, were parked within the walls.

With the return of peace, interest was again awakened in improving the grounds. Landscaping was finally begun about 1784 under the direction of Samuel Vaughan, a wealthy Jamaica sugar planter then living in Philadelphia. In addition to the wide central walk of gravel, leading from the tower door to the Walnut Street gate, and the serpentine walks about the perimeter of the square, the most noticeable feature of the yard was the assortment of 100 elm trees presented to the Commonwealth by George Morgan, of Princeton. Shortly after the landscaping was completed, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler visited this square and described it in his journal as a "fine display of rural fancy and elegance."

Triumphal arch for Lafayette's visit to Independence Hall, September 28, 1824.
Unidentified engraving (c. 1824). Courtesy Philadelphia Free Library.

The trees are yet small, but most judiciously arranged. The artificial mounds of earth, and depressions, and small groves in the squares have a most delightful effect. The numerous walks are well graveled and rolled hard; they are all in a serpentine direction, which heightens the beauty, and affords constant variety. That painful sameness, commonly to be met with in garden-alleys, and other works of this kind, is happily avoided here, for there are no two parts of the Mall that are alike. Hogarth's "Line of Beauty" is here completely verified.

The next alteration of the State House Yard following Vaughan's landscaping was undertaken in 1812. In that year, when the old wing buildings were demolished to be replaced by "modern" office buildings, the high brick walls were removed to allow a "freer circulation of air." In their place was erected in the following year, a low brick wall, about 3 feet high, with a marble coping surmounted by a railing of plain iron palisades. Access to the square was provided by a large gate on Walnut Street and smaller ones on Fifth and Sixth Streets, about halfway between Chestnut and Walnut.

Other changes affecting the early scene followed in 1876. Along with such necessary improvements as resodding and new drainage, broad steps were constructed in the center of the Walnut Street front and at the corners on Fifth and Sixth Streets. Wide flagstone walks were laid through the grounds in almost every direction from street to street. The later addition of steps on Fifth and Sixth Streets, near Chestnut, substantially established the condition of the square as it is today.

Through the years the square has served varied purposes. It was frequently the scene of mass meetings and public demonstrations. Large gatherings met here frequently in the course of the critical days before and during the early part of the Revolution. The most note worthy of these occurred on July 8, 1776, when, from the observatory platform—described above—Col. John Nixon read publicly for the first time that document since known as the Declaration of Independence.


top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Mon, Dec 2 2002 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home