The ‘Bold Vagaries’ of Frank Furness

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Lewis Tanner
The front façade of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; designed by Frank Furness, 1871–1876


Late-nineteenth-century Chicago is widely deemed to have been the crucible of modern architecture in this country—the birthplace of the skyscraper, the city that nurtured Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and a host of other innovators dubbed the Chicago School. After World War II, Los Angeles—enlivened by an influx of émigré architects from Europe and young American coprofessionals attracted by a booming, prosperous population amenable to new ways of living—became the country’s foremost center for experimental design, culminating in the late-twentieth-century phenomenon of Frank Gehry. Yet every so often, towering if idiosyncratic master builders have emerged from the supposedly conservative milieu of Philadelphia, which has always been overshadowed by New York City, the financial and cultural powerhouse eighty miles to the northeast.

From the 1950s onward, the more searching eyes of the architectural world were focused on Philadelphia’s Louis Kahn, who by the time of his death in 1974 was considered the world’s preeminent architect, largely because he abjured commercial compromises that had diminished the profession’s artistic authority.1 During the 1960s Philadelphia became even more of an architectural cynosure with the influential husband-and-wife team of Robert Venturi (who’d worked for Kahn) and Denise Scott Brown (who’d studied with him at the University of Pennsylvania), controversial for their irreverent Pop references.2

But a century before them all, the exemplar of the rogue Philadelphia architect, full of boundlessly stimulating invention and unconcerned about fashionable developments elsewhere, was Frank Furness, one of those unruly creative prodigies for whom there will never be any rational explanation. His work, like that of many other Victorian designers, drew on a rich variety of historical details—mixing, sometimes in a single building, elements from the Assyrian and Saracenic to the Romanesque and Gothic, along with large helpings of the nineteenth-century French Classical Revival style called Néo-Grec. More remarkably, he celebrated industrial components by refusing to conceal steel I-beams and rivets even in genteel interiors like those of his Bryn Mawr Hotel of 1890 in Pennsylvania (now the private Baldwin School for girls), where his forthright detailing presaged the frank exposure of underlying structure by twentieth-century high-tech modernists.

After this long-neglected giant was finally appreciated once more—a crucial turning point was the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 1973 Furness retrospective—overenthusiastic fans began to attribute every quirky Victorian survival in southeastern Pennsylvania to Furness, in much the same way that there are purported to be at least twice as many Long Island houses by Stanford White as he actually created. But just a brief familiarization with Furness’s design vocabulary makes it easy to identify his work, which was as personal as a thumbprint.

This quality is owed to a strong inner logic that prevailed no matter how wild and unexpected his juxtapositions…

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