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Perry Square Alliance
To assist the City of Erie in every way possible to revitalize and maintain Perry Square as the focal point of downtown Erie for the benefit of all of its citizens.
The park which is now known as Perry Square is located in the heart of downtown Erie. It is bounded by French Street to its East and Peach Street to its West. The north and south boundaries are respectively North and South Park Rows. It is bisected by State Street which separates the city (and the park) into its east and west sections.
The Park was originally part of the plan for the City of Erie which was laid out in 1795 by famed surveyor Andrew Ellicott, the same man who helped map many of the territories west of the Appalachian Mountains, surveyed the boundaries for the District of Columbia, and took over the plan for completing Washington D.C. The area now occupied by the park was then forest wilderness and a deep ravine ran through it from south to north. The first section of the park was cleared of trees in 1808. Large trees which now adorn the Park were planted in 1846, the same year the park came to be known as “Perry Square” in honor of the victor in the battle of Lake Erie. It was subsequently known as the “Diamond,” and on June 19, 1887, was, by City of Erie Ordinance, formally named “Central Park.” In 1911, on the eve of the centennial celebration of Perry’s 1813 victory in the battle of Lake Erie the name of the park was formally changed back to Perry Square, which remains to this day.
The first court house erected in Erie County was built in the west park in 1808. It and all of its contents were destroyed by fire in 1823. A new court house to replace it was then erected in the west park in 1825. This courthouse was on the east side of the west park and faced State Street. In 1854 this court house was replaced with what is now the west wing of the Erie County Courthouse, just west of the park on the north side of West Sixth Street. A market house was also erected in the west park in 1814. It was replaced by another at the same location in the 1830’s. Both markets were next to the court house and also faced State Street. The second market was torn down in 1866 and was not replaced. During the first half of the 19th century several small buildings housing city and county offices were also erected in the west park. The park sections were surrounded by a low white picket fence in 1866. The fence came down in 1881. The walkways were paved with asphalt in 1881.
An ornate band pavilion was built in the center of the west section of the park in 1873. In 1886 it was removed. Park fountains were erected in 1868 at a cost of $3,237.98 in both the east and west sections of the park. In 1913 a new fountain was placed in the east park. That fountain was then moved to the west park where it replaced the original fountain there. The east park fountain was then replaced by the Edison Electric Fountain in 1929. Its unique feature was the colored light illumination of the fountain’s spray. Significant changes were made to the Edison Fountain in the late 1980’s as part of a major renovation of the entire park. Also at that time the west park fountain was replaced by the gazebo which exists in the west park to this day.
In 1872 the Soldiers and Sailors monument was erected in honor of those Erie County residents who gave their lives to preserve the Union. This monument was originally erected in the west park facing State Street. Later it was moved to its present location in the west park facing to the west where West Sixth Street intersects with Peach Street. A statue of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was erected in the east park and was dedicated on the bicentennial of Commodore Perry’s birth, August 23, 1985. It faces to the east where East Sixth Street intersects with French Street. There are numerous other statutes and monuments located throughout both sections of the park honoring war veterans from various wars and police officers and firemen who died in the line of duty.
Properties surrounding the park have been historically significant. The park has always been the focal point of the downtown area of Erie. In the 1880’s a magnificent new City Hall was built facing the west park at the southeast corner of South Park Row and Peach Street. In the 1960’s it was demolished and replaced with the current City Hall. Another significant structure was built at the southeast corner of South Park Row and State Street in the 1880’s to house federal offices. It was known as the Government Building. It was replaced in the 1930’s by a second federal building which housed, among other federal government functions, the federal courts in Erie. The Erie Public library was later built just to the east of this, facing the park at the corner of South Park Row and French Street. These two building were combined into a new federal building complex in the late 1990’s when the library was moved to the bay front. Most of the major hotels in Erie were built fronting on the park. These included the Reed House, Brown’s Hotel, The American Hotel, and the Richford Hotel. Churches fronting on the park included Park Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church. The Park Opera House and the Exchange Building were built in the 19th Century and faced the west park from North Park Row. The Exchange Building still stands at the northwest corner of State Street and North Park Row. Mansions of two of Erie’s wealthiest citizens also were built facing the park. The Charles Manning Reed Mansion at West Sixth and Peach Streets was built in 1846 and since the early 20th century has housed the Erie Club. The Strong mansion was built across Sixth Street from the Reed Mansion in the 1890’s and presently serves as “Old Main” for Gannon University. Erie Insurance has been a major employer in Erie for the past almost 100 years and now fronts on the park from the east side of French Street.
Significant investment has been made in and around Perry Square over the years. A $530,000 project was carried out in the 1980’s under the administration of then Mayor Louis Tullio. A federal grant of close to $500,000 was obtained by Congressman Phil English for park improvements in 2008. These funds will be used for improvements in the State Street areas of the park in the summer of 2011. The Erie Community Foundation made a $12,200 grant for an underground sprinkling system in 2010.
In 2006, the City of Erie commissioned a master plan for the future of Perry Square. This inspired the formation of a citizens group to assist in carrying out this plan. That organization is known as the Perry Square Alliance, a not-for-profit corporation, which solicits funds for park improvements and oversees the restoration and maintenance of the park. It has “sold” the four corners of the park for beautification purposes to four local entities that have an interest in seeing the park properly maintained. They are Erie Kiwanis, Stairways, Gannon University and PNC Bank. Erie Insurance has also been a strong supporter of Park maintenance and improvement. Beautiful flower beds have now been planted in those four corners. The first stages of the master plan have been completed with selected removal of some trees and the installation of an all new lighting system. Funds for this project came from a Community Development Block Grant obtained by the City of Erie.
Today, Perry Square is a sanctuary to local residents and other visitors seeking a quiet place in the center of the bustling city. The park hosts many events. Celebrate Erie, an annual downtown festival, helps to bring many members of the Erie community to Perry Square for food, fun, and music. A farmers market is often located in east Perry Square where regional farmers sell their produce weekly during the summer months. Many public interest groups and political candidates also choose Perry Square to hold rallies for their causes. The Park is lighted for the holiday season in December and a ceremony is held when the lights are first turned on.
The history of what we now know as Perry Square indicates a city and its people that value the quality of life that is enhanced by its parks. The future of Perry Square appears secure as the present generation of citizens carries that work forward.
*The Perry Square Alliance and the City of Erie are deeply indebted to Katie Demetriadis, a student at Gannon University, for her work in compiling the information necessary for this history.