the Civil Warand his own rageshaped Frank Furness.
What Penn student has failed to be impressed by the hulking red mass of the Fisher Fine Arts Library? Terminating the eastern axis of Locust Walk, the building, which served as the Universitys main library until Van Pelt was built in the 1960s, crouches like a chained animal ready to spring at its tamer neighbors on College Green. As an undergraduate with aspirations toward becoming an architect, I found it mesmerizing (even after my lack of drawing talent pushed me toward another major).
The buildings many contradictions perhaps fascinated me the most. The great towervisible all the way from the 38th Street Bridgeis suitably massive, but its interior lay exposed via a vast plate-glass window. At key structural junctures in the exterior masonry, delicate terra cotta flowers bloom even as fierce dragons snarl. In the vast, light-filled reading room, exposed wrought-iron girders slide into pockets above stone corbels, a chimney piece stops abruptly below a cornice, and severed pilaster capitals float like decapitated heads. Quotations by famous authors follow the arc of the leaded glass windows, reminding us as we enter and leave that, for example, Talkers are no great doers. At once historical and modern, serious and witty, this is a building that actively shapes minds.
Built between 1888-1890, the library was the collaborative project of two extraordinary minds: Horace Howard Furness, the Shakespearean scholar and University trustee who provided the quotations, and his brother Frank Furness, the Civil War captain and peerless architect, who provided the building. In Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind, the first full-length biography of this most idiosyncratic of creative individuals, Michael J. Lewis maintains that Furness was architect of the most original buildings in Victorian America. If so, why has scholarly and popular recognition eluded Furness for so long? The reasons, as Lewis makes clear, are numerous.
Furness occasionally designed works as far afield as Maine and Illinois, but his practice was largely confined to Philadelphia and its suburbs, which by the third quarter of the 19th century had been eclipsed by New York and Chicago as the locus of architectural innovation. Moreover, he did little to promote the publication of his buildings in the architectural journals, the surest way of creating a national following, and the complexity of his designs prevented even his local imitators from fully absorbing their lessons. When a reinvigorated neoclassicism swept the United States in the aftermath of the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Furnesss career went into decline. Eclectic buildings like the Library were scorned not for what they were (efficiently designed and modern in structure) but for what they were not (tastefully designed and obvious in pedigree).
Lewis, an associate professor of art at Williams College, argues persuasively that it was Furnesss irascible and often unlikable personality that contributed as much to his decline in reputation as the shifting tides of architectural fashion. Like a forensic sculptor, he creates a composite portrait of Furness from the scattered evidence that survives: family papers and photographs; reminiscences by friends and colleagues; his one published article, Hints to Designers; his sketchbooks, most of which remain in private hands; his working drawings, which are distributed among several institutions, including Penns Architectural Archives; and his remaining buildings. Although incomplete, the portrait Lewis creates is a compelling one, even as it strips away much of the subjects patina.
Furness was born in Philadelphia in 1839, the youngest of William Henry and Annis Furnesss four children. Of his mother we learn little; his father was the dominant role model. William Henry Furness, who counted Ralph Waldo Emerson as a childhood friend, was a Harvard-educated ordained minister who became the leader of Philadelphias Unitarian congregation. Over time, he emerged as a staunch abolitionist in a city divided over the slavery issue. Lewis vividly describes Furnesss Pine Street townhouse as a kind of foreign embassy, where representatives of Boston culture and New England transcendentalism sat in state, haughty and forthright.
As a youth, Frank Furness showed little interest in academic subjects, save for architecture, which evidently piqued his curiosity. Around 1855, he began working as a draftsman for the respected Philadelphia architect John Fraser. Through family connections, he subsequently landed a more advantageous position with architect Richard Morris Hunt in New York. Hunt, the first American to study at the prestigious äcole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, had recently opened an atelier in a novel building of his own design in Greenwich Village.
In emulation of his French experience, Hunt acted as patron, or instructor, treating his draftsmen essentially as students and organizing monthly projects that culminated in thoroughgoing critiques. These projects would have emphasized such essential Beaux Arts principles as rational planning along symmetrical and hierarchical lines and careful study of the classical orders. Furness quickly proved himself to be skilled in drawing, with an especially wicked knack for caricature. The atmosphere of camaraderie and competition in Hunts atelier only whetted Furnesss desire to attend the äcole himself, but the outbreak of the Civil War caused him to postpone such plans indefinitely.
Lewiss chapter on Furnesss Civil War experiences contributes a great deal of new and revealing information about the architect. In 1861 Furness was commissioned a lieutenant in Rushs Lancers, an all-volunteer Union cavalry unit from Philadelphia, so named for its use of anachronistic battle lances (high German Romanticism, muses Lewis). The Lancers fought with some distinction in Virginias Peninsula Campaign andminus their lances and re-designated the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalryin the battles of Brandy Station and Gettysburg.
At the Battle of Cold Harbor, Furness, now a captain, astonished both his Confederate attackers and his Union comrades when he leapt into the crossfire to stanch the wound of an opponent. He performed yet another act of reckless bravery at Trevilian Station, Virginia. Learning that a nearby unit was low on ammunition, Furness and another officer hand-carried boxes of cartridges more than 50 yards to the besieged unit in full view of the enemy; amazingly, both men returned to their units unharmed.
The war continued to shape Furnesss life and work even after his discharge in October 1864. As Lewis notes: from it [Trevilian Station] he learned that the bold and unexpected act was likely to meet with success, and that, in some way, he was charmed and thereby immune to danger. But did Furness really wage architecture as Lewis so boldly claims?
Free to pursue his architectural education at last, Furness instead opted to enter professional practice, revealing an underlying pragmatism that guided him to nearly the end of his career. Briefly, he resumed working for Hunt in New York, but he soon realized that his future lay in Philadelphia. He returned to his hometown in 1866 and married his fianc»e, Fannie Fassit. After a brief attempt at practicing solo, Furness joined in partnership with Fraser, his first employer, and George Hewitt.
The pairing of Furness and Hewitt was especially fortuitous, and Lewis neatly differentiates the intertwined strands of their collaboration. Although inexperienced, Furness had absorbed a great deal from his time with Hunt, particularly in the efficient planning of buildings and the use of an updated classicism known as neo-Grec. Hewitt meanwhile adhered to the colorful and picturesque Victorian Gothic popularized by John Ruskins Stones of Venice (1851-1853). Their greatest triumph together, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871-1876), is a marriage of Furnesss rational plan and structural ingenuity to Hewitts bold colors and stylistic eclecticism.
Just before entering the academy competition, the younger partners staged a coup. With Fraser off supervising work in Washington, they dissolved the partnership and regrouped as Furness and Hewitt. This was perhaps the first outward evidence of what would become Furnesss increasingly aggressive professional behavior. Earlier, he had become disillusioned with the corruption that plagued local architectural competitions, and although he worked diligently to enforce the professional standards of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)acting as a kind of spoiler, according to Lewishis efforts at reform were largely unsuccessful and unappreciated.
Friction between Furness and the architectural community began to build. When longtime local rival James H. Windrim unsuccessfully accused Furness in court of stealing the commission for the House of Corrections in 1871, most of the citys leading architects sided with Windrim. Furness retaliated by withdrawing from the local chapter of the AIA, which he had helped found. In 1875, he unceremoniously dissolved the partnership with Hewitt. To be fair, Furness was in many ways emulating the cutthroat practices of his clients in industry and finance, and the growing boldness of his designs seem to reflect this.
The 1870s and 1880s were Furnesss most successful and productive decades. After the split with Hewitt, Furness remained without a partner until 1881, when he promoted Allen Evans, a draftsman with important social connections. Designs for banks, railroad stations, townhouses, and suburban estates poured forth from the office. Furness was keenly aware of such national stylistic trends as the Romanesque-revival popularized by his Massachusetts rival Richardson, or the Queen Anne, a picturesque domestic mode based loosely in the late Middle Ages, but on each he put his personal stamp. Exposed structural iron became an integral part of his major public buildings, a material to be celebrated for its modernity rather than hidden by historical clothing. The library at Penn represents Furness at his apogee: a rational planincluding a provision for extending the book stacks indefinitely to the southoverlaid with metaphorical text and ornament that suffuse the design with meaning.
Ironically, it was Hunt who indirectly thwarted Furnesss late career. Hunt led the architectural team for the Columbian Exposition, and while many of his former pupils were granted commissions, Furness was asked only to chair the board of inspectors. One senses in Lewiss account of this and Furnesss ill-fated entry for the Pennsylvania State Capitol competition, that the architect did not comprehend quickly enough the seriousness of the shift in taste then underway. Although Furness used classical motifs inventively throughout his career, his competitors of the 1890s scored greater successes by copying historical antecedents directly.
When the Girard Bank sought an architect for a new, neoclassical building at Broad and Chestnut Streets (now the Ritz-Carlton Hotel), the directors invited Evansbut not Furnessto submit a design. At least initially, Furness ignored this slight, and worked on preliminary drawings that were submitted under Evanss name alone. The outcome of that project, which eventually became a collaboration between Evans and the well-known New York Firm of McKim, Mead, and White, left Furness embittered. He died in 1912.
There was a darker side to Furnesss personal life to which the surviving documents only allow occasional glimpses. Youthful melancholy was transformed over the years into adult rage. First-person accounts by his co-workers invariably mention his uncontrolled temper and colorful swearing, and his brother Horace once even compared him to King Lear. Although never mentioned specifically, alcoholism seems to have contributed to his flagging mental and physical health. Furnesss marriage, despite producing four children, was not entirely happy, and there are hints of a mistress in the background. To his credit, however, Lewis wisely refrains from idle speculation that his historical evidence cannot support.
In the final analysis, however, I would argue that Furnesss mind was not particularly violent. Perhaps a better term would be sublime. This was an aesthetic label often applied during the early 19th century to works of art that were powerful enough to provoke feelings of awe or even terror in a viewer. That Furness was able to carry this romantic impulse into the gritty, industrial milieu of late 19th-century Philadelphia is his chief legacy to American architecture and the reason for his continued relevance. One need only peer into the restored reading room of the Fisher Fine Arts Library on a typical afternoon when it is crowded with students to feel so moved.
Robert Wojtowicz C83 G83 Gr90 is associate professor of art history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is co-editor of Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford: Thirty Years of Correspondence.
A selection of recent books
by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community.
Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and
MURALS AND THE STORIES THEY TELL
BEYOND SILENCE: Selected Shorter Poems, 1948-2003
MARCHING HOME: To War and Back with the Men of One American Town
HEALTHY TEENS, BODY AND SOUL:
THE ANARCHY OF EMPIRE IN THE MAKING OF U.S. CULTURE
MINION: A Vampire Huntress Legend
THE JEWISH WORLD IN STAMPS:
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