Frank Furness: He Put the Modern in Architectural Design

Photograph of Frank Furness

Photograph of Frank Furness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before Frank Furness transformed western architecture in the late-19th century, his field seemed to be stuck in the past. “If you were designing a library, you looked to King’s College [at the University of Cambridge] and imitated the forms” of that institution, says George Thomas, an urban planner and architecture historian who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. “Basically, as you look at the early to mid-nineteenth century in architecture all across Europe and America, you can very quickly tease out the historical sources that were being drawn on.” Opening his office in Philadelphia in 1866, Furness had a different vision that led him to create new forms inspired by industry, Thomas explains.

Thomas is organizer of Furness 2012: Inventing Modern, a Philadelphia-based celebration of the architect’s innovative work upon the 100th anniversary of his death. The celebration has included exhibitions, talks, and Furness-inspired street art throughout the city. Click here to see more of Furness’s famous projects.

Furness was born in Philadelphia in 1839. His father, William Henry Furness—a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist—was a major influence on him. So was the rising industrial culture of his native city:

“In the nineteenth century, the premier machine tool-and-die maker in the world is William Sellers, whose business dominates industrial design and wins all the gold medals in the Paris Fair,” Thomas explains. One of his central ideas was that “the design ought to serve the particular task at hand.” His cousin and main designer, Coleman Sellers, lectured at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1874 about their machines, pointing out that they were painted gray in order to look like the metals from which they were made. He went on to explain that the new purposes of industry demanded new forms.

“My sense is that’s exactly the parallel that Furness picks up and runs with in architectural design,” Thomas says. “He begins to understand that post-Civil War America is drastically different. There’s no point in looking to history for solutions.”

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1900. Detroit Publishing Company. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph’s division. under the digital ID det. 4a08450.

One of the best showcases of Furness’s “drastically different” architectural strategy is Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871). As part of Furness’s design, “students are pushed as far away [as possible], to the farthest back corner, because I suspect that then, as now, art students are not what you want to mix with your paying customers,” Thomas says. Furness also put a giant freight elevator at the back of the building to enable the movement of canvases, sculptures, and animals used in art instruction. “Furness understands there are paying customers, students, and objects and animals. Each has a different entryway into the building.”

Rather than hiding the academy’s building materials, Furness shows them off with a huge exposed steel truss spanning the north side of the building. Its addition made it possible to put a glass roof above the academy’s ground-floor art studios. “He’s basically thinking of the building as a factory-meets-palace for art.”

Furness’s vision continued with his design of the University Library (now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library) at the University of Pennsylvania. “You walk in and there’s this lesson in new materials of the age, [including] big iron stairs with cast-iron newels and wrought iron railings,” Thomas says. “Furness is reveling in what this new material can do.”

The industrialists and engineers who inspired him were entranced enough with Furness’s work to hire him at the rate of one building every other week for the rest of his career, Thomas notes. Furness designed railroad presidents’ homes, train stations, libraries, banks, hospitals, churches and synagogues, and more. “You name it, he’s doing it.”

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsy...

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furness’s career spanned four decades. Like his father, he was “not afraid to be a hero,” Thomas says. “He wins the Medal of Honor in the Civil War fighting for his father’s beliefs, and he’s not afraid to be a hero as an architect. Rather than ducking into the crowd, he tends to carry the ammunition box across the battlefield … I think that is what is at the core of what makes him so interesting: there is a heroic personality, a new context, and a connection to the great forces of the industrial age.”

Furness’s legacy isn’t limited to the buildings across the Philadelphia region that that his firm designed. His students, including Louis Sullivan (who went on to teach Frank Lloyd Wright), George Howe, and William Price, also helped carried the message of modernism into the 20th century.

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