I was early for a Society of Architectural Historians meeting at the Athenaeum on Washington Square the other day, so I took some time and explored the Square and the Curtis Building, which faces it.
One of the original 5 squares laid out by William Penn, the history of the area is below:
- In the 18th century, Washington Square served as a potter’s field for those who couldn’t afford (or were deemed not to deserve) burial in churchyards or private graveyards. During the Revolutionary War, when the British occupied the city, prisoners who died in Walnut Street Prison, at 6th and Walnut, were buried here in 20-by-30-foot mass graves, with coffins piled atop one another. It was last used as a burial ground during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.
- Spectators crammed Washington Square to see the first hot-air balloon flight in the nation, which took off from the jail yard of Walnut Street Prison on January 9, 1793. Attending dignitaries included President Washington and his wife, James Madison, physician Benjamin Rush and financier Stephen Girard. The pilot, Frenchman Jean Pierre Blanchard, flew as high as a mile before landing across the Delaware in Deptford, New Jersey, bearing a bottle of wine to share with locals and a letter of introduction from the President.
My next stop was the Curtis building to visit the large Tiffany glass mosaic mural in the lobby. Designed by artist Maxfield Parrish in 1915, it has had a colorful past. At one time a casino magnate wanted to buy it and take it to Atlantic City. Dream Garden is now owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who saved it.
Below is a view of the Curtis Building as seen from Washington Square.A bit of architectural history from Carolyn Roland, Your Older and Historic Homes Resource.