Origin of Ravenna's Public Square remains a mystery

By Jack Schafer and Robert Bruegmann Published:

One of the

most interesting and curious features of Ravenna's built environment is at once so obvious that few residents give it a second thought and at the same time so subtle that few visitors even notice it. Ravenna's "Public Square" -- no, not the city park in front of the Courthouse, but the slight widening along the two central blocks of Main Street -- has been at the center of the city since the town was laid out. Why it was laid out the way it was, however, remains something of a mystery.

Public Square was the centerpiece of the plat created by Benjamin Tappan, Jr. when he laid out the town in 1808. The original town plat included the area between what is now Sycamore and Walnut streets and between Highland and Riddle avenues. In this plan, which was neatly divided into four quadrants by Main Street (originally called State Street) and Chestnut Street, Tappan laid out a regular grid of streets and 192 blocks, each of them consisting of three lots. Public Square lies in the center of this plat and is the single most important deviation from its almost completely regular street geometry.

The idea of including a public square certainly did not originate with Tappan. Most New England towns had, at their center, village greens or public squares. These features probably descended from the British "commons," areas belonging to the entire community that could be used for communal purposes, for example the grazing of livestock or public events like May Day festivities or the public hangings. In American towns of the 19th Century most farmers lived on their own farmland rather than in the towns and so the commons became a ceremonial public space, often a landscaped park that served to set off a city hall or courthouse. These buildings might be located within the square or facing it. This pattern is clearly seen in many towns across Ohio, for example at Cleveland, Burton, Medina, Chardon and Hudson.

At Ravenna, the public space was greatly condensed. Instead of a landscaped square bounded by four streets, Public Square in Ravenna consists of a widening of Main Street from 100 to 130 feet wide. Like the idea of the public square itself, this kind of urban feature was not new. In many cities in the eastern United States such a widening accommodated a public market or a town hall, often in the same building.

However, there is little evidence that Tappan expected to see a market structure on Main Street in Ravenna. It is also not clear whether Tappan was sure that Ravenna would become the county seat when he laid out the Public Square; he may have anticipated that the lots the Courthouse was to eventually occupy were to be filled with commercial buildings like the others. So why did he bother creating a public square at all? It seems most likely that he felt a need to make his new town competitive with the other rival cities then being established in the Western Reserve. Many of these towns boasted a ceremonial public space at the center so he may have felt the need to follow suit. On the other hand, he might have been reluctant to sacrifice so much saleable land for public purposes. In any case, the result is that the additional 30 feet of street width is not great enough to produce a major effect, at least as it currently exists when it is completely paved over and filled with traffic and parked cars. Most people driving through Ravenna, perhaps even quite a few residents, probably don't even notice that Public Square is there.

In fact most Ravennans, if they think of Public Square at all, probably believe that it is the green city park in front of the courthouse, which certainly has more of the qualities most people associate with a public square or village green than the widened street that was actually designed as the central open space of the city. One of the problems with this current city park is the way its open space bleeds into the open space of Public Square, making both spaces somewhat unbounded and indistinct.

Two nearby public squares illustrate the role urban design can play in creating a coherent and legible cityscape. Believe it or not, Streetsboro has a public square, and it is actually quite a bit larger than Ravenna's. However, the four plots of ground occupying the four corners of the intersection of State Routes 14 and 43 that together constitute Streetsboro's Public Square are so unbounded and ill-defined that this space is almost invisible within the messy vitality of the S.R. 14 commercial strip. Compare this configuration with the public square at Canton, which was laid out in a fashion similar to the one in Ravenna. However, in the case of Canton, Market Street, where it intersects with Tuscarawas at the center of the city, widens to 160 feet, (30 feet more than Ravenna's). This slightly more generous allocation of land has allowed for a landscaped center median, creating an important visual centerpiece for the city.

Modest as it might be, Ravenna's Public Square does anchor the city's center. Some of Ravenna's largest and most impressive buildings face it. The effect was undoubtedly more impressive when the old 1882 courthouse was still standing up close to Main Street and the city park was behind it. One of the challenges facing Ravenna today is creating a more legible urban order out of both the Public Square and the adjacent city park. There is a great deal of excellent historic "urban fabric" already in place surrounding these spaces including Riddle Blocks No. 1, No. 2 and No. 9, the Phenix Block, the Etna House, and of course Ravenna's landmark flagpole. Together they already create one of the most memorable architectural ensembles of any city of Ravenna's size in Ohio. With some tweaking of Public Square and reworking of the city park landscaping these two spaces together could function as an even more handsome nucleus of a revitalized Ravenna as it moves further into its third century.

Jack Schafer is a Ravenna businessman with an interest in historic preservation. Robert Bruegmann is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at University of Illinois at Chicago.

This is the first in a series of articles to be published in the Record-Courier about the architecture and built environment of Ravenna and Portage County.

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  • "It is also not clear whether Tappan was sure that Ravenna would become the county seat when he laid out the Public Square..."

    According to the 1885 History of Portage County, the legislative act creating Portage County was passed June 7, 1807, and it named Benjamin Tappan's house as the location of county government "until a permanent seat of justice shall be established." (p. 192)

    The town plat of Ravenna was created in early 1808 (pp. 195, 317, and 337), and Ravenna was officially named the county seat later in 1808 (p. 195). 

    With this in mind, it would seem that while he may not have known for sure if it would happen, he likely knew that it was a strong possibility.  Having a plat, and one with a public square, could influence the commissioners, who chose the site for the county seat, in Ravenna's favor. On page 195 it also talks about the story that what is now Kent was nearly chosen as the county seat (meaning there was some competition). What Tappan's exact motivation was for including the square will always be a mystery of sorts, since there is no record of him stating definitively why, it seems plausible that he was planning Ravenna to be the county seat and simply following the normal pattern for laying out towns in that era, county seat or not.

    It is worth noting that the 1836 town plat for what is now downtown Kent also had a public square ("Franklin Square") stradding the north and south sides of Main Street east of DePeyster.