Continental Square: York’s Hub from its beginning

The situation

No single piece of real estate in York County has seen more meaningful change and shaping events than York’s Continental Square, that long-time crossroads where east meets west and north meets south.

Before this place even served as the intersection of Market and George streets, it provided a rise before settlers southbound or westbound on the Monocacy Road after 1730 moved down to cross the Codorus Creek. And that road in places followed the former Native American path – the Monocacy Trail – that connected the Susquehanna and Potomac rivers.

Then came the newly minted county of York in 1749, and Centre Square’s hosting of the seat of county government five years later with a 45-foot by 45-foot York County Court House in its middle.

American Revolution, Civil War and World War II history entered the square, and the market center of York County operated in sheds at its center. The square played a role in most every significant gathering in the York area in the county’s 275 years.

The early stages of Continental Square’s makeover. A tree is being removed from the planter on the square’s northeast corner in 2024. People referenced this square as Centre Square or the Square until 1925 when its name was changed to Continental Square as planning took place for the 150th anniversary of the Continental Congress’ visit to York in 1927.

And let’s explore other examples that move us toward today: When the news of V-J ending World War II reached York, people rushed to the square to hug, kiss and celebrate. The next year, growing vehicular traffic, crowded by the roundabout in place since the original courthouse went up in 1754, could travel straight through the square, with the changing of traffic patterns still in place today. And in the mid-1970s, the city widened the sidewalks and narrowed West Market Street to slow east/west traffic and to improvement the pedestrian experience. Large trucks could not navigate the serpentine street leading into a square that since the 1960s had hosted large plazas with planters bearing trees constructed in the square’s four angles.

We’ll fast forward to York County’s 21st-century story to the year 2005 when a series of events moved the city’s cultural center from the square toward the north:

In 2004, the new judicial center – York County’s fourth courthouse – was opened at Philadelphia and George. Three years later, the York Revolution began play in a new stadium farther north on George, known today as WellSpan Park. The buzz of pedestrian traffic and the crack of the bat could be heard in that part of town as jurors and baseball fans no longer walked through the square.

As for the westward tug, Susquehanna Commerce Center construction began in 2001 on former brownfield land at West Philadelphia Street and the Codorus Creek. The two towers of high-end office space were nearly full when the center opened about a year later. Many of those in the new offices formerly worked in and around the square and no longer needed to walk through those expansive plazas.

In the past dozen years, events, entertainment venues and cultural life grew in the Arts/Market District around Beaver and West Philadelphia and in the Royal Square District around King and Queen streets. Each grew without a dependence on the square. In fact, it was a long, sometimes ill-lit walk between these two cultural centers, until aided greatly by the Yorktowne Hotel’s reopening in 2023.

So for several years, the city has faced a challenge of updating and improving Continental Square as a way of restoring its longtime status as a hub and gathering place. Early in 2024, city officials outlined a makeover plan that, among other things, will mean new landscaping in the early 1960s planters and clearing the southeast plaza to accommodate larger crowds. The makeover plan, which includes mothballing the comfort stations, is described here and is expanded in the interview with York Mayor Michael Helfrich below.

You could say that here in 2024 there’s a healthy and invigorating tug-of-war in place to bring pedestrians to and through this longtime heart of York and York County.

As part of Continental Square improvements, the southeast plaza will be designed as an event space. That means these underground comfort station railings will be removed and placed into storage and the restrooms stabilized. The stairways will be covered over. Last check with the city, no decision had been made on the 250th monument, which also serves as a ventilation shaft for the comfort stations. The planter in this section will be removed as well.

The witness

A discussion with York Mayor Michael Helfrich about improvements to York’s Continental Square.

Q. The goal of this improvement project, as outlined in the city’s new release: “The improvements will make the Square more visibly attractive year-round as well as more pedestrian friendly.” Can you unpack that some more? For example, to improve the walkability between the Arts/Market District and the Yorktowne/Royal Square District? And/or to enlarge space in at least one plaza as an outdoor event venue that would add to activity in the square?

 A. Healthy flowering trees, shrubs, perennials, and annual plantings for year-round color will increase the aesthetics of the Square. Opening up space on the square, including a long-term “decluttering” of it, will improve walkability in the area. For example, some of the signs in the square could be moved into the planters so as to free up space for people. Additional wayfinding signs will be added, but the removal of some light poles also frees up additional space.

Q. Generally, how will lighting be improved in Continental Square, as a result of this project?

A. The new lighting will be uplighting in the planters, once again adding to the aesthetics of the Square.

Q. Can you explain what this means from the release? “… better support for the traffic signals, the hanging of banners, and the display of the annual Christmas star.”

A: The City’s Electrical Bureau will be creating new support anchors to help stabilize the four poles that support the traffic signals and cables for the banner system and the Christmas star.  Currently the cables that stabilize these poles are anchored on to the Locust Trees.  If one of these trees were to fall, it could bring down the traffic lights in the Square.

Q. What are the early improvements residents will see to the square?

A: By late March, the public will be seeing the new landscape lighting and the new landscaping.

As part of Continental Square improvements, the southeast plaza will be designed as an event space. The southeast plaza is in the distance – across George Street – and the southwest quadrant is in foreground. That means these underground comfort station railings will be removed and place into storage and the restrooms stabilized. That means the stairways will be covered over. Last check with the city, no decision had been made on the 250th monument, which also serves as a ventilation shaft for the comfort stations. The planter in this section will be removed as well.

Q. Realizing that the city won’t bear any costs, what is the cost for these improvements?

A: To keep costs down the City will be utilizing Public Work Staff to remove the trees in the square, along with the stump, root mass and soil in each planter. Public Work Staff also will be removing the planter on the Southeast corner of the square as well.    The project to relandscape the five planters to include the landscape lighting will be $24,728.00.   This cost is being covered by the Rotary Club of York.   The annual maintenance for the planters, which will include watering, 3 seasonal annual plantings and re-mulching, will cost $8,266.66 per year, which is where the funding from the Endowment at the York County Community Foundation will go.

Q. Anything else you’d like to say about the project?

A: York City’s Continental Square is so very much more than a hub. It is also a destination and a gathering place for the community. It is where York’s Christmas tree goes, where we celebrate New Year’s Eve, and where we meet up and relax. We want to guarantee it remains beautiful and alive with energy for us and future generations.

Endowment fund: An endowment has been created at the York County Community Foundation to sustain the upkeep of future landscaping in the planters on the Square, including watering, mulching, and the three plantings of annuals that will provide seasonal color in the Square. To contribute to the endowment, please call 717-848-3733 or visit this link.

Summary on work in and around square: Quadrants or plazas are added to Continental Square to create transition from roundabout to actual intersection: 1962 – Work completed on semi-mall narrowing streets and widening sidewalks on West Market Street around square: 1979 –

Additional links

York County, Pa.: 10 leads to get to know it (

Photos: York’s Continental Square has changed much through the years (

York’s Continental Square’s history in 5 easy links (

The questions

Mayor Helfrich outlined a long list of improvements made to York’s Continental Square. Is there anything you would add to the list? What other things can we do to improve the look and feel of York’s square?

Hometown History explores Penn Park, its history and future. This local history YouTube and podcast series plans to visit Continental Square in 2024 to do a show.

Sources and links: York’s Continental Square – Pivotal events play out here – Witnessing York and York’s Continental Square’s history in 5 easy links (; YDR Photos.


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