Headhouse Square is the historic section of the historic Society Hill neighborhood, encompassing the extra-wide blocks of 2nd Street that run from South Street to Pine Street. Way back in the day, like in the days before America was a country and Betsy Ross was still walking these cobbled streets, this stretch was filled with vendors hawking their wares, and the area was known as New Market. The market was “new,” and not to be confused with the “old” High Street Market, located on the eastern blocks of what we know today as Market Street. Over time, New Market became more formalized, with sheds getting built to cover the vendors, and those sheds remained intact for a couple hundred years.
In the mid to late 1950s, the shed that ran from Lombard to Pine was restored and converted into the Shambles, an open air public space that today accommodates the Headhouse Farmer’s Market, as well as other events large and small. The southern shed was torn down at the same time, and was replaced by something far less exciting – parking. Looking at bird’s eye views of the block dating back to the 1960s, things looked more or less the same for decades, with about 40 parking spots running perpendicular to 2nd Street from either direction, and a median in the middle. From an urban planning perspective, this setup wore out its welcome by the bicentennial. And yet it persisted until like two years ago.
Dating back at least a decade and a half, South Street Headhouse District, the local business improvement district, has been working on a plan to reinvent the southern section of Headhouse Square to bring it into modern times. In 2015, Planphilly shared early conceptual drawings from Ambit Architecture of what a renovated Headhouse Square would look like. Over the next couple years, various meetings with neighborhood stakeholders, including property owners, business owners, and residents, resulted in several changes to the plan, which was finally approved by the Art Commission in 2017. Construction started in 2020 and wrapped up in the last week or so, finally reopening this block after a closure that surely lasted longer than anyone expected.
The new plaza includes several major changes from the old setup. Most noticeably, there are two new canopy structures at the site, with one near South Street and the other closer to Lombard. The red triangular canopies reflect the shape and brick color of the Shambles to the north, with their white undersides echoing the color of the Shambles ceiling. Though they reflect the centuries old building to the north, they still offer a real contemporary vibe in a historic part of town.
It’s also interesting that the parking has been reduced by about 25%. In theory, we would have liked to see all the parking removed here and the creation of a larger public space. But we also can appreciate that this is a commercial district and that the businesses aren’t going to exclusively rely on walkup traffic, so the parking feels like a necessary evil. Still, fewer spots for cars means more space for people and we’ll call that a win.
Speaking of more space for people, the median that once sat in between the two parking areas is now gone, replaced by a paver-covered at-grade path leading up the middle of 2nd Street. This median served little purpose except to cut off the eastern side of the block from the western side of the block and with its removal, the block and the plaza in the middle possess much more flexibility. The parking barriers are moveable, which means that any street fairs or extensions of the farmers’ market can be done in a much more seamless fashion. And let’s agree, the new path is far more aesthetically pleasing than the old cement median.
If there’s one disappointment to this project, it’s that the fountain that was previously located across from the Shambles at 2nd & Lombard is gone. With how hot it’s been the last few days, we have an extra appreciation for any public options to cool things down, and we imagine any families in the area with young kids are especially bummed that the water element was removed. From what we understand, the fountain broke about three years ago and the cost of repairing it would have been quite high. The cost of maintaining the fountain was also a significant expense for South Street Headhouse, and as a result the fountain was ultimately nixed.
On the whole though, the missing water element is just a minor blemish on what is otherwise an awesome transformation of a long underutilized public space. We can’t wait to see how the new and improved Headhouse Square gets used this coming summer and in the years to come.