Protesters slam plan for stairwell at Furness site Demonstrators gathered at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Officials say the plan poses no danger.

Posted: December 18, 2003

In the cold and in the drizzle, beneath the grim sky, a small group of protesters stomped and chanted: "Don't mess with Furness! Don't mess with Furness!"

They passed out flyers with lurid headlines - Butchers of Broad Street! - and held up portraits of Frank Furness, designer of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a bright blue tear cascading down his mustached cheek.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Robert Venturi was there, in front of the landmark academy building. At the age of 78, Venturi was attending his first street demonstration.

He did not mince words. "We've come out to protest this aesthetic crime," he said.

Venturi, along with 30 to 40 other prominent architects, historians, critics and citizens, endured a chilling afternoon to show opposition to the academy's proposal to cut a stairwell into the historic Furness entrance hall.

The stairs, which would be situated beneath the building's existing grand staircase, would lead to a tunnel running under Cherry Street and up into the new Hamilton Building.

Venturi said yesterday that the plan was akin to punching a hole into one of the academy's great paintings.

"You don't punch a hole in a masterpiece. You don't punch a hole in this building," he said.

Michael Lewis, chair of the art history department at Williams College, drove five hours from Massachusetts to join the protest, which coincided with a regular meeting of the academy's board of trustees.

"This building is one of the great spaces in the country, let alone Philadelphia," Lewis said. The plan amounts to "a sacrilege," he added.

Critics of the plan argue that cutting a hole in the Furness building lobby would cut the heart out of Furness' aesthetic design.

Those critics also have raised the possibility that the stairwell proposal could cause serious structural harm to the building.

The building, opened in 1876, is a local and national historic landmark.

Derek Gillman, president of the academy, and architect Peter Saylor, designer of the stairwell, say the plan poses no danger. Yesterday, however, Gillman said the academy would seek a second engineering opinion on the project.

George Thomas, architectural historian and an organizer of yesterday's protest, said: "The fact that you can do it isn't the issue."

Added Thomas: "The core question is: Should you make this type of change to what is arguably the greatest space in the city? The fact that you can mutilate it doesn't mean you should mutilate it."

Contact staff writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

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