In keeping with its official name, The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, has always been closely linked with the life of its neighborhood in the heart of Center City Philadelphia. It was founded at the moment when urban development, which had moved westward from the Delaware River, reached the southwestern of the four squares laid out in William Penn’s original plan. A group of prosperous merchants and professional men first met in 1855 to plan formation of a new Episcopal parish near the square.
In the midst of contention within the Episcopal Church over appropriate approaches to worship, the founders also intended to ensure a place in the neighborhood for a “low church” parish, one following simpler liturgies and emphasizing preaching. In fact, many leading members, such as merchant Lemuel Coffin who had been raised as a Quaker, had moved to the Episcopal Church from other Protestant denominations. In keeping with this vision, they chose Philadelphia architect John Notman’s design for a building of sandstone in the Norman or neo-Romanesque style often favored by low-church congregations. Although the original plan for the building featured a grand steeple that would dominate the square’s landscape, its interior was in effect a large lecture hall seating 1500, with large galleries on the sides.
Also in keeping with the founders’ vision, they selected as its first rector the Rev. Alexander H. Vinton of Boston, a leading low church figure. With the church building still under construction, Vinton began his tenure on November 28, 1858 by preaching morning and afternoon services in the Parish Building located directly to the west along Walnut Street. Inaugural services in the new church were held on March 27, 1859.