As far back as the 17th century, William Penn knew the positive impact that green space can have on a community. So when he created his “greene countrie towne,” a.k.a. Philadelphia, in 1682, he developed five squares which still survive today: Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square, Washington Square, Centre Square (where City Hall now stands) and the North Publick Square which we know today as Franklin Square.
Throughout the centuries, the park has been used for a wide – and colorful – variety of different purposes. In 1741, William Penn’s son, Thomas, leased a portion of the land for fifty pounds sterling to the First German Reformed Church for use as a burial ground. Researchers discovered that the oldest gravestone belonged to Elizabeth Messenger and dated back to December 14, 1742. During the 18th century, the park served as the final resting place for more than 3,000 people including Philip Phile who composed the signature piece of music for the Vice President.
But use as a graveyard wasn’t the park’s only purpose. Over the years, it was used as a cattle pasture. It served as a horse and cattle market. And it was used as a magazine (storage area) for ammunition powder and a drill and parade ground for the American military during the War of 1812 before finally becoming what it is today – one of Philadelphia’s city parks. In the early 1800s, the street bordering the south side of Franklin Square, then called Sassafras Street, was the site of so many horse races that eventually the city renamed it Race Street. And fun fact – did you know that Franklin Square was the first park to introduce the Urban Gray Squirrel? Indeed. In 1847, the squirrels were introduced at Franklin Square and as squirrels will do, they quickly multiplied and spread to Chestnut and Walnut Streets.
Did you know? In 1847, Franklin Square was the first park to introduce the Urban Gray Squirrel.
Over the years, it is no secret that the park fell into disrepair and was a victim of urban blight. In 1915, the Fairmount Park Commission, now part of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, took over management of the park. In 1982, Franklin Square was named to the National Register of Historic Places. And in 2005, Historic Philadelphia, Inc. (HPI), received the rights to renovate and manage Franklin Square as an outdoor recreational and heritage site.
Since taking over stewardship of Franklin Square, HPI has completely transformed the park. In addition to restoring the park’s open green spaces, HPI added such iconic attractions as the Parx Liberty Carousel, Philly Mini Golf, SquareBurger and most thrillingly, repaired and restored the landmark fountain around which guests can settle into one of the many benches to enjoy choreographed light and sound fountain shows.