Honoring Frank Furness, who was not appreciated in his time

Biographer Michael J. Lewis has arranged a fitting musical tribute at the house where Frank Furness was born on Pine Street.
Biographer Michael J. Lewis has arranged a fitting musical tribute at the house where Frank Furness was born on Pine Street. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 15, 2012

Philadelphia architect Frank Furness died in 1912, broken and out of fashion, and things only went downhill from there. His hometown soon came to revile his work. By the time historians and architects began to rediscover his genius in the 1960s, many of his finest buildings were already reduced to dust.

The long climb back to a place of honor will culminate today when his admirers dedicate a historic marker in front of the house where he was born, at 1426 Pine St. The event, which kicks off celebrations for the centenary of his death, promises to be an unusually festive one.

Furness, like his buildings, has a reputation as a brooding figure, a Dark Knight of architecture. But in the course of compiling documentation for the state marker, biographer Michael J. Lewis discovered that Furness could occasionally display a lighthearted side.

As a captain of a cavalry unit during the Civil War, Furness coauthored a satirical song about his company's exploits.

Like so many military verses, "The Rush Lancers" pokes fun at the puffed-up, clueless brass while praising the virtues of the "noncoms and the privates." It was tucked away in a Library of Congress file and forgotten.

Lewis, who unearthed the original sheet music last year, has arranged for the Orpheus Club chorus to perform the song outside Furness' home when the marker is dedicated at 5:30 p.m. The serenade is not just to the architect, but to the "jolly Lancers," the tight-knit band Furness commanded during the long, bloody war.

It's not exactly Walt Whitman, but Lewis predicts that when the humorous lyrics are sung at Furness' home, with solos by Edward Lawler and Mitchell Dean, "they will become deeply touching and moving."

As far as Lewis knows, the song has never been performed publicly.

Though Furness is now recognized as a pivotal figure in architecture, whose work - which includes the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the University of Pennsylvania Library, and the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia - captured the first stirrings of industrial-age modernity, he is less well known as one of Philadelphia's great Civil War heroes. As the marker notes, he is the only famous architect to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery.

Furness experienced all the brutalities of that terrible war. As as a lancer in the Sixth Pennsylvania Calvary, he was part of a unit whose members were expected to charge their opponents with their sharp poles drawn, even though the weapon was no match for Confederate guns. A horse Furness was astride was shot dead while he rode into a smoky charge. His unit sustained enormous casualties.

As Lewis recounts in his 2001 biography, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind, the cruelties Furness saw took their toll on him and influenced his architecture.

His facades are a battleground of clashing materials and forms. The designs tend to emphasize the weight of stone bearing down on the earth. Furness' thick, heavy columns are the equivalent of Atlas struggling to hold up the world.

So, Lewis says, he was surprised to see Furness could also have a sense of humor.

In one verse, Furness tells of a "jovial major" who "hails from Berks Countee":

"He'd eat or fight to suit his mind

With equanimitee

He took ten pail of Reading ale

To gain his healthy glow

He was a Lancer, O!"

The discovery of the song, along with many other documents, has prompted Lewis to write a second book on Furness.

It's not clear whether Furness had any musical ability, but Lewis notes that his father, the Rev. William Henry Furness, was a Unitarian minister who wrote many hymns.

The elder Furness was also an ardent abolitionist and often hosted Ralph Waldo Emerson at his Pine Street home. Philadelphia was such a small town that Furness ended up designing a major addition for a neighbor across the street, now the main building of the University of the Arts.

Furness' reputation been steadily growing in recent decades. The turnaround began in 1966, Lewis says, when Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi published his landmark treatise, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which cited Furness' work as an important influence.

That book was a critique of international style modernism, and it helped open people's eyes to the eclectic designs of the late 19th century. Furness later became "a major inspiration for postmodern architecture," Lewis adds.

At the same time, Furness is increasingly seen as a proto-modernist. He was an early adopter of steel frames and mechanical ventilation. His work celebrates those modern inventions by incorporating industrial gears and pulleys into the decoration.

During his heyday, Furness was considered one of the most avant-garde architects in America. He is also seen as the forebear of a whole line of important American designers. In the late 19th century, the rising young architect Louis Sullivan made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to study with Furness. After Sullivan made it big in Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright journeyed there to study with the new master. A similar love for decoration can be seen in the work of all three men.

Despite the growing admiration for Furness' style, Philadelphia continues to lose his buildings at a steady rate.

Right now, the congregation of the 19th Street Baptist Church in Point Breeze is fighting to save a green, serpentine stone church that Furness designed in the high Victorian Gothic style. City inspectors recently deemed it unsafe.

Lewis hopes this fall's celebrations will bring a new respect for Furness' work. Shows are planned at museums and archives around the city. More information is available at frankfurness.org.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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