This week’s ILMA Architect of the Week is one of my favorite Architects of all, Frank Heyling Furness (November 12, 1839 – June 27, 1912), who was an American Architect of the Victorian era. He designed more than 600 buildings, most in the Philadelphia area, and is remembered for his eclectic, muscular, often idiosyncratically scaled buildings, and for his influence on the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Furness was also a Medal of Honor recipient for his bravery during the Civil War.
Toward the end of his life, his bold style fell out of fashion, and many of his significant works were demolished in the 20th century. Among his most important surviving buildings are the University of Pennsylvania Library (now the Fisher Fine Arts Library), the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, all in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Over his 45-year career, Furness designed more than 600 buildings, including banks, office buildings, churches, and synagogues. As chief architect of the Reading Railroad, he designed about 130 stations and industrial buildings. For the Pennsylvania Railroad, he designed the great Broad Street Station (demolished 1953) at Broad and Market Streets in Philadelphia, and, for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the ingenious 24th Street Station (demolished 1963) alongside the Chestnut Street Bridge. He was one of the most highly paid architects of his era, and a founder of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. His residential buildings included numerous mansions in Philadelphia and its suburbs (especially the Main Line), as well as commissioned houses at the New Jersey seashore, Newport, Rhode Island, Bar Harbor, Maine, Washington, D.C., New York state, and Chicago, Illinois.
Following decades of neglect, during which many of Furness’s most important buildings were demolished, there was a revival of interest in his work in the mid-20th century. The critic Lewis Mumford, tracing the creative forces that had influenced Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, wrote in The Brown Decades (1931): “Frank Furness was the designer of a bold, unabashed, ugly, and yet somehow healthily pregnant architecture.”
“The city street facade can provide a type of juxtaposed contradiction that is essentially two-dimensional. Frank Furness’ Clearing House, now demolished like many of his best works in Philadelphia, contained an array of violent pressures within a rigid frame. The half-segmental arch, blocked by the submerged tower which, in turn, bisects the facade into a near duality, and the violent adjacencies of rectangles, squares, lunettes, and diagonals of contrasting sizes, compose a building seemingly held up by the buildings next door: it is an almost insane short story of a castle on a city street.”
On the occasion of its centennial in 1969, the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects memorialized Furness as its great architect of the past:
“For designing original and bold buildings free of the prevalent Victorian academicism and imitation, buildings of such vigor that the flood of classical traditionalism could not overwhelm them, or him, or his clients …
For shaping iron and concrete with a sensitive understanding of their particular characteristics that was unique for his time …
For his significance as innovator-architect along with his contemporaries John Root, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright …
For his masterworks, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Provident Trust Company, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station, and the University of Pennsylvania Library (now renamed the Furness Building) …
For his outstanding abilities as draftsman, teacher and inventor …
For being a founder of the Philadelphia Chapter and of the John Stewardson Memorial Scholarship in Architecture …
And above all, for creating architecture of imagination, decisive self-reliance, courage, and often great beauty, an architecture which to our eyes and spirits still expresses the unusual personal character, spirit and courage for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery on a Civil War battlefield.”
Furness’s independence and modernist Victorian-Gothic style inspired 20th-century architects Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi. Living in Philadelphia and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, they often visited Furness’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — built for the 1876 Centennial — and his University of Pennsylvania Library.
The 2012 centennary of Furness’s death is being observed with exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the Delaware Historical Society, the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, and elsewhere. On September 14, a Pennsylvania state historical marker was dedicated in front of Furness’s boyhood home at 1426 Pine Street, Philadelphia (now Peirce College Alumni Hall). Opposite the marker is Furness’s 1874-75 dormitory addition to the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, now the Furness Residence Hall of the University of the Arts.
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