A Q&A with Nancy Heinzen, about Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square

Nancy Heinzen, author of The Perfect Square: A History of Rittenhouse Square discusses the history of Rittenhouse Square in this new video clip.

And, in this Q&A, Heinzen explains why she loves where she lives.

Why did you title your book The Perfect Square?

The title comes from an account of Rittenhouse Square from The American Scene written by Henry James. When he was in Philadelphia to lecture, James was standing in one of the “ample, tranquil” bay windows of what had been James Harper’s house [now the Rittenhouse Club] located on the north side of the Square, when he made the observation about the residential square being “perfect.”

What is the significance of the reflecting pool and the guard house on the cover?

These easily recognizable symbols lie in the heart of the Square. The mosaic on the reflecting pool represents Neptune and his sea garden. It was designed by Paul Cret and executed by Enfield Tile Co in 1913. The mural was removed in 1914 and restored in 1999 by Friends of Rittenhouse Square.

Can you reveal the story about the statue of the Duck Girl in the reflecting pool? 

The Duck Girl was created in 1911 by Paul Manship for another site. Manship would gain fame when he created another statue in the classical style–the Prometheus in Rockefeller Center. The Duck Girl was first exhibited in 1914 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was soon after recommended for purchase by the Fairmount Park Art Association’s Committee of Works of Art.  In 1916, it was placed in Cloverly Park in Germantown. Years later, in the 1940s, it made its first appearance in the square, where it was vandalized and moved into a Fairmount Park warehouse. In 1960 the statue was placed in the reflecting pool in the Square until a more suitable site could be found.

The Perfect Square traces the growth and development of Rittenhouse Square through the ages. How do you think the square has evolved over time?

The era that gave the Square its cachet even today, was the Post Civil War period. This was when Philadelphia was the most important city in the U.S. thanks to coal, iron, and most importantly, the Pennsylvania Railroad. Great fortunes were made at that time—and where better to live than on Rittenhouse Square?

There are grand mansions and tony apartment buildings that line the perimeter of Rittenhouse Square. Do you have a favorite building, or a place  that particularly fascinates you?

I have always been fond of 1804 South Rittenhouse Square. This charming little house squeezed in between two high rises was the home of John  D. Lankenau, a renowned philanthropist. I like the house because it retains it architectural details, such as the iron railing at the entrance.

How did you come to research and write this book? How long have you been documenting the history of the square?

I have always been interested in the history of the area, and over the years I have read and collected stories of the people and happenings, I guess I began this about 15 years ago, by collecting photographs.

What has been your greatest pleasure about living on the square?

The change of seasons each with its own special magic and promise that one never grows tired of.

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