Fourth of July: Freedom Fighters Beneath Our Feet

1920px-Tomb_of_the_Unknown_Revolutionary_War_Soldier-27527The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier in Washington Square, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, featuring a replica of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s famous bronze sculpture of George Washington.

Philadelphia knows how to celebrate the Fourth of July.  Millions will gather here this holiday weekend to visit Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, to gaze in awe at fireworks and to attend the largest free concert in the country. But few, if any, will realize that the true heroes of the American Revolution lie under their feet.

Growing up in Philly, I crossed Washington Square Park hundreds of times without knowing its history. In spite of the dog walkers, children on tricycles, and tourists on park benches, there was always something sad about the leafy square. Then, one day, I read the inscription above a monument with an eternal flame. “Freedom is a light for which many have died in darkness.” I read on in horror. In 1776, more than 2,500 fallen troops of Washington’s army were buried unceremoniously here in a mass grave.

Out of curiosity, I researched the park’s history. Originally it was created by William Penn as Southeastern Square in 1682. After being used as a mass grave for unknown Revolutionary War soldiers, it became a burial ground for African American victims of Yellow Fever and a place on which to graze animals. James Madison had described it as “ . . . a drab and melancholy place.” Indeed!

Renamed Washington Square in 1895, it was converted into a public park and beautified with over 60 varieties of trees. However, it wasn’t until 1954 that a monument with a bronze statue of Washington identified the Square as the resting place of thousands of unknown soldiers. In 2005, the National Park Service took over the Square and it is now part of Independence National Historic Park.  (Horticulturalists take note of Washington Square’s Moon Tree, sprouted from a seed that traveled to the moon and back on Apollo XIV.)


Hall-and-Wings-960-X-480_1Independence Hall. See the room where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both signed. Photo: National Park Service.

Besides being centrally located in Philadelphia’s Historic District, walking distance from the Constitution Center, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the American Jewish Museum, Washington Square Park is surrounded by historically significant architecture.

Formerly, the Square was home to the city’s (and nation’s) publishing industry. The Curtis Center on the north side of the park at Sixth and Walnut is a stunning Beaux Arts building designed by Edgar Seeler in 1910. The former home of Ladies Home Journal, Holiday, and The Saturday Evening Post, it features an elegant marble lobby containing a Tiffany glass mosaic re-creation of Maxfield Parrish’s The Dream Garden.  Don’t miss the building’s atrium, filled with faux Egyptian palms, and which has a three-story terraced waterfall fountain. (Visit soon, because the pristine building is scheduled to be converted into yet another multi-purpose condo/retail center.)

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