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Waging Architecture

How the Civil War—and his own rage—shaped Frank Furness.
By Robert Wojtowicz

Architecture and the Violent Mind

By Michael J. Lewis G’85 Gr’89.
New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
273 pages; $45.00.
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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 University’s 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 building’s many contradictions perhaps fascinated me the most. The great tower—visible all the way from the 38th Street Bridge—is 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 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Furness’s 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 Furness’s 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 Penn’s Architectural Archives; and his remaining buildings. Although incomplete, the portrait Lewis creates is a compelling one, even as it strips away much of the subject’s patina.

Furness was born in Philadelphia in 1839, the youngest of William Henry and Annis Furness’s 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 Philadelphia’s Unitarian congregation. Over time, he emerged as a staunch abolitionist in a city divided over the slavery issue. Lewis vividly describes Furness’s 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 Hunt’s atelier only whetted Furness’s desire to attend the äcole himself, but the outbreak of the Civil War caused him to postpone such plans indefinitely.

Lewis’s chapter on Furness’s Civil War experiences contributes a great deal of new and revealing information about the architect. In 1861 Furness was commissioned a lieutenant in Rush’s 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 Virginia’s Peninsula Campaign and—minus their lances and re-designated the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry—in 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 Furness’s 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 Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (1851-1853). Their greatest triumph together, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871-1876), is a marriage of Furness’s rational plan and structural ingenuity to Hewitt’s 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 Furness’s 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 Lewis—his 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 city’s 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 Furness’s 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 plan—including a provision for extending the book stacks indefinitely to the south—overlaid with metaphorical text and ornament that suffuse the design with meaning.

Ironically, it was Hunt who indirectly thwarted Furness’s 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 Lewis’s account of this and Furness’s 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 Evans—but not Furness—to submit a design. At least initially, Furness ignored this slight, and worked on preliminary drawings that were submitted under Evans’s 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 Furness’s 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. Furness’s 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 Furness’s 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 C’83 G’83 Gr’90 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.

Briefly Noted 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 publishers.

By Jane Golden, Robin Rice, and Monica Yant Kinney.
Photographs by David Graham and Jack Ramsdale.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
160 pp., $29.50.
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In 1984 muralist Jane Golden headed up a six-week youth program to fight graffiti in Philadelphia. Out of this effort emerged the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program—led by Golden and dozens of artists, neighborhood residents, and volunteers—becoming one of the most vibrant public-art projects in the United States. This book shows how murals are made and why the process is as much an art of diplomacy and consensus-building as paint and perspective. Golden has worked as a fine-arts instructor at Penn [“The Big Picture,” March/April 2002].

BEYOND SILENCE: Selected Shorter Poems, 1948-2003
By Daniel Hoffman, Faculty.
Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
226 pp., $49.95 (cloth); $26.95 (paper).
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This collection, representing a half-century of poetry writing, was published on Dr. Daniel Hoffman’s 80th birthday on April 3. Poet Rosanna Warren writes: “Beyond Silence celebrates a lifetime of making. Training the lucidity and conscience of prose upon the trellis of song, Daniel Hoffman has, in book after book, maintained the high dignity of an art at once public and private, ethical and sensuous, restrained and full-hearted.” Hoffman is Felix E. Schelling Professor of English Emeritus and a past Poet Laureate of the United States.

MARCHING HOME: To War and Back with the Men of One American Town
By Kevin Coyne C’81.
New York: Viking/Penguin Putnam, 2003.
406 pp., $25.95.
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This book tells the story of six young men from Freehold, N.J., who went off to war. Each one returned home—alive, a hero—only to discover perhaps tougher battles. The first half follows their wartime lives. The second half follows the men back home as they confront the changes in Freehold and America after World War II. Born, raised, and currently living in Freehold, Kevin Coyne is the author of A Day in the Night of America.

Stories of Inspiration and Achievement

By Jim Platt C’94 with James Buckley Jr.
Chicago: Triumph Books, 2002.
180 pp., $29.95.
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Lance Armstrong’s racing jersey. Franco Harris’s cleats. Cy Young’s autographed baseball. Collector Joel Platt has worked since childhood to gather sports memorabilia as the nucleus for a museum to honor sports legends. Spanning more than a century of athletic achievement, the Sports Immortals Collection highlighted in this book contains more than a million mementos, including uniforms, gear, autographs, artifacts, tickets, programs, cards, and games. Jim Platt, Joel Platt’s son, is the vice president of Sports Immortals.

Photographs by Bill Aron C’63. Text by Vicki Reikes Fox.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2002.
138 pp., $24.95.
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From Levy, Arkansas, to Kaplan, Louisiana, Southern-Jewish culture is alive and well below the Mason-Dixon line. And it has been flavored by the South in both subtle and larger ways: during Sukkot, freshly picked cotton is used to cover sukkahs. Synagogue cookbooks contain dishes like charoset with pecans, matzo ball gumbo, and lox and bagels with cheese grits. Jewish cemeteries hold the tombstones of Jewish soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Photographer Bill Aron and curator Vicki Reikes Fox bring the lives of Southern-Jewish families—in all their variety, history, and joy—to these pages.

A Parent’s Complete Guide to Adolescent Health

By Andrea Marks M’72 and Betty Rothbart.
New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2003.
358 pp., $14.00.
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This book covers the head-to-toe, outside-inside health needs of today’s 10- to 21-year olds. Written by Dr. Andrea Marks, a specialist in adolescent medicine, and Betty Rothbart, a psychiatric social worker and educator, this comprehensive reference gives straightforward guidance on how to talk with teens in a way that will help them take charge of their own health. The authors also show how physical health concerns must be considered within the context of three main goals of adolescence: gaining independence, clarifying sexual identity, and finding a realistic, satisfying place in society.

By Amy Kaplan, Faculty.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
260 pp., $35.00.
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Exploring how images of imperial expansion abroad have profoundly shaped the sense of national identity at home, Dr. Amy Kaplan argues that the cultural phenomena we think of as domestic (or American) have been forged in the crucible of foreign relations. The very idea of the nation as a home is inextricable from imperial expansion abroad and encounters with people and cultures conceived of as foreign. Kaplan is a professor of English and author of The Social Construction of American Realism.

MINION: A Vampire Huntress Legend
By L.A. Banks W’80*.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
304 pp., $12.95.
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All Damali Richards ever wanted to do was create music and then bring it to the people. Now she is a Spoken Word artist and the main talent for Warriors of Light Records. But come nightfall, she hunts vampires and the other night demons. Recently, a group of rogue vampires has been killing the artists of her recording label and their rival, Blood Music. Damali soon discovers that behind these attacks is the most powerful vampire she has ever encountered, and it is Damali he is after. *L.A. Banks is the pen name for Leslie Esdaile [“Alumni Profiles,” November/December].

4000 Years of Jewish Civilization
on Postage Stamps

By Ronald L. Eisenberg C’65 M’69.
Rockville, Md.: Schreiber Publishing, 2002.
228 pp., $36.00.
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Ever since his first visit to Israel 30 years ago, Dr. Ronald Eisenberg has been a collector of Israeli stamps. While poring over a stamp catalogue, he noticed a large number of stamps from countries throughout the world that depicted synagogues. That experience provided the seed for this micro-encyclopedia—a colorful journey through 4,000 years of Jewish civilization on postage stamps. Eisenberg, a radiologist, has written more than 20 books in his medical specialty.

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Shooting at the Moose Head
Furness biographer Michael Lewis G’85 Gr’89 talks about the brilliant, eccentric architect in an interview with senior editor Samuel Hughes.

Gazette: In 1870, Furness was invited to submit a design for Penn’s soon-to-be-built West Philadelphia campus. What happened?

Lewis: It is one of those rare moments where Furness acted on principle. He had just helped set up the AIA in Philadelphia, in order to regulate architectural competition. Since the Penn competition was unfair (it didn’t guarantee that the prize-winner would get to build the building, or a fee of five percent), the city’s architects—including Furness—boycotted it. Thomas Webb Richards crossed the picket line and won the project.

Gazette: You mentioned in conversation that Furness’s office was a “hotbed of University of Pennsylvania students.” Why was that, and can you talk about the most interesting students?

Lewis: Furness claimed he hated schools of architecture since they stifled creativity, but he hired architectural students all the time—probably because they offered a cheap source of labor. Furness typically didn’t pay them for two or three years until they finished their apprenticeship. At least a dozen Penn students worked for him, and most became quite successful subsequently. One of the great Philadelphia society firms of the 1910s came directly out of Furness’s office: Charles Willing [C’06], James Felix Talbutt [C’06] and Joseph Patterson Sims [C’12]. I like to think that Furness’s Penn students have a good record compared with his non-Penn assistants. At least none of them went to prison for fraud, unlike Princeton’s Joseph Huston, who was convicted of misappropriating funds for the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

Penn architects who trained
with Frank Furness:

William Camac, 1868.
Edward Hazelhurst, 1872-74.

Henry Pettit, circa 1859-62; Hon1877.
Lindley Johnson, 1875.
Herman L. Duhring, 1895/1904.
Clarke Wheaton Churchman, 1899.
Edmund Cadwalader Evans, 1897Ů99.
John Irwin Bright, 1895-96.
Charles Willing, 1906.
James Felix Talbutt, 1906.
Edward Fenno Hoffman, 1910.
Joseph Patterson Sims, 1912

Gazette: Everyone knows Furness’s library. How about the other designs he did for the University?

Lewis: The [original] vet school was Furness’s first project at Penn, and it clearly amused him. A vet school is always an unusual project. On the one hand, it is a scientific institution, and should express modernity, hygiene, and progress. On the other hand, it is a building for the keeping of animals, which suggests something rustic, like a stable. Any other architect would have tried to unite these functions, but Furness played up the contradictions. He put a functional, well-lighted operating room at the corner of 36th and Spruce, and surrounded it with rambling, informal stables. Like all of his projects for Penn, he used humor to suggest that education is dynamic and vital, not dry or passive.

Furness hoped to build at least two other major projects at Penn: the Alumni Hall and the dormitories. The Alumni Hall almost got built [“Unbuilt Penn,” September/October 2002], and the University tried for a few years to raise money for it. It would have sat just to the north of the library, making a kind of red brick rebuke to the green-stone complex of College and Logan Halls. It was an octagon and it would have been Penn’s main auditorium; actually, Irvine Auditorium is very similar to it in plan. Most strangely, it would have been wrapped around its middle with a broad terra cotta frieze, a modern version of the Parthenon frieze. This would have been done by Karl Bitter, Furness’s favorite sculptor. The whole thing would have been quite alarming, and if it had been built, I can imagine Penn falling over itself to blow it up in the 1930s.

Gazette: When Charles C. Harrison became provost, he fired Furness and gave the commission for the Quad to John Stewardson, Furness’s former pupil. Describe the “great cinematic moment” when Furness was fired.

Lewis: This was high tragicomedy. Horace Howard Furness was a college trustee and was always pushing his brother forward. But he was deaf and usually didn’t go to board meetings because he didn’t want to force people to bellow into his silver ear trumpet. Harrison used the absence to fire Furness without opposition. When Horace heard the news, he burst into Harrison’s office, yelling: “Why have you done this terrible thing? You could have had a poem in brick!” [i.e., the Quad]. The words must have stung, because Harrison wrote them down verbatim in two separate memoirs.

Gazette: Any outtakes or stories about Furness that should be told?

Lewis: After my book came out, I interviewed the daughter-in-law of Edward Fenno Hoffman [C’10, a Furness-trained architect]. I asked her if she knew any anecdotes about Furness. She told me that there was a moose’s head on the wall at the end of the office corridor. Whenever there was a slow day, Frank would pull out his Civil War revolver and take potshots at it. All the new draftsmen had to be warned to check to see if he was taking aim before they went out on their lunch break. I love the image: It’s 1910 and gunshots are ringing out 10 stories above Chestnut Street. I wish I had been able to put that in the book.