Legacy of Frank Furness burns during citywide celebration

New exhibits observe the 100-year anniversary of Frank Furness' death.
New exhibits observe the 100-year anniversary of Frank Furness' death.
Posted: December 14, 2012

ONCE DISMISSED FOR his eccentric designs, Philadelphia architect Frank Furness has been celebrated around the city this year to mark the 100-year anniversary of his death.

Furness created some of Philadelphia's most iconic buildings, including the Fisher Fine Art Library at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on Broad Street, which is hosting a retrospective about him through Dec. 30.

The centennial celebration series is called "Revolutionary Philly: Making Buildings Out of his Head," referencing a comment his contemporary, architect Louis Sullivan, made about Furness - that his designs seemed to spring straight from his imagination, not the architectural trends or conventions of the time.

According to PAFA press materials, Furness "created a new architecture that incorporated the materials and expressed the energy of the Iron Age. Just as Barcelona's Antonio Gaudi symbolized his city in the twentieth century, Furness embodied the values of Philadelphia in the industrial age."

But Furness' bold Victorian style was not generally appreciated as tastes changed in the 20th century. Many of his creations - he's said to have designed 1,000 structures - were destroyed, including the original Broad Street Station, razed in 1953.

William Whitaker, curator of Penn's Architectural Archives and the Kroiz Gallery (his office is on the lower level of Furness' Fisher Library) said that a turnaround began in the late '60s and '70s with new scholarship that suggested Furness's work influenced many great architects, including Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

"Little of his work remains," Whitaker said, noting that Penn's collection of Furness material doesn't nearly match that of other noted architects, such as Louis Kahn. "What little we have is from family members and from plans recovered from the vaults of Reading Railroad."

Well, more accurately, plans recovered from the trash.

The story, according to Whitaker, is that when Reading Railroad closed its Reading Terminal headquarters in the late '70s, it threw its store of plans into a trash bin. "Some savvy collectors essentially Dumpster-dived and saved a number of drawings and plans."

Many of those plans were by Furness, who worked as the chief architect for Reading Railroad. Many of Furness' surviving buildings are railroad stations, including Gravers Station in Chestnut Hill and Wilmington Station in Wilmington, Del.

Furness was a Philadelphia original. Born at 1426 Pine St. in 1839 (a historic marker was placed outside the building earlier this year), he was the son of the Rev. William Henry Furness, the first permanent minister of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Today, the church is located in a Furness-designed building at 2125 Chestnut St.

A cavalry officer in the Civil War, Frank Furness was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Trevilian Station in Virginia. Unlike many other celebrated architects, he never attended a university.

Whitaker said that when he gives tours of the library, he likes to show his guests an 1888 hand-drawn plan for the building, then a 1920s proposal to cover it in Gothic stone and straight angles by the architect Robert Rhodes McGoodwin. Had the renovation gone through, it would have drastically modified Furness' design to make it conform to Penn's other buildings, Whitaker said.

The idea that anyone would want to mute the grand tower and round reading room of Fisher Library might seem surprising today, but "you have to keep in mind that it was the taste and culture of the time," Whitaker said. "Furness was not popular."

Unlike the Fisher Library, the 136-year-old home of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, built by Furness after he won a contest to design the structure for the 1876 Centennial, was never under threat.

PAFA Museum Director Harry Philbrick said there have renovations, but nothing dramatic.

"In 1976, we renovated to restore the interior to its original state," Philbrick said. "We had to remove a lot of sheet rock and plywood that had been used to cover interior walls. That was it. "

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition, "Building a Masterpiece: Frank Furness' Factory for Art," gathers together 32 Furness drawings of plans for PAFA, including a number submitted to the original design competition.

"Viewers will get a very complete look at what went into planning this building," said Philbrick. The most striking thing about PAFA's home, he said, is that while it's more than 136 years old, Furness' design does not feel dated at all.

"It's fantastic," Philbrick said. "It was designed to have an exhibition space on the second floor and studio space on the ground floor, and in 2012, it functions much the same way. It was such an intelligent design."

On Furness' genius, Whitaker agrees. "We hold him to be one of our great heroes," he said. "You rarely get that kind of vigor and boldness . . . absolutely unique vision. What better voice could there be for Philadelphia?"


"Building a Masterpiece: Frank Furness' Factory for Art," Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry streets, ends Dec. 30. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.


Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

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