5.8. THE MARK TWAIN OF AMERICAN ARCHITECTURE: FRANK FURNESS

After the Rev. Furness had accepted a call and moved the family in 1825 to  Philadelphia, he and Emerson had continued their friendship by alternating visits to each other: the Furness family returning to their Boston roots each summer while Emerson made frequent visits to Philadelphia, often playing the role of uncle for Frank, the youngest of the four children born in 1839.  Among his three older siblings were the oldest, brother William who was a German-trained portrait painter, sister Annis who would become a translator of German literature, and Horace, a Harvard-educated lawyer destined to be one of the country’s experts on Shakespeare. Education and self-reliance were obviously part and parcel of the Furness family’s upbringing.  Frank Furness, therefore, had matured under the influence of not only Emerson but also that of his father’s quoting Emerson’s ideas as well as his own ideas about the individual as well as American art and architecture.

Frank Furness, it seemed, had been predestined to be an architect.  In 1856, 16 year-old Frank had met 28 year-old Richard Morris Hunt who had stopped at the Furness house having just returned from his studies in Paris.  Immediately following his return, Hunt had spent a brief period working for Thomas U. Walter in Washington D.C. (Walter had moved from Philadelphia after completing the Jayne Building) and was now making his return to New York to start his own practice.  Along the way Hunt managed a brief stay in Philadelphia to visit Frank’s older brother, William, whom he had befriended in Paris.  The next year Frank’s other brother, Horace, received a letter from two of his former Harvard classmates, Charles Gambrill and Henry Van Brunt, stating their delight in their success in having convinced Hunt to begin teaching architecture in his New York studio/office.  Gambrill would be joined by George Post and Henry Van Brunt in Hunt’s “first class” in Hunt’s newly designed Studio Building on 10th Street that would soon become the center of New York’s art scene.  

Richard Morris Hunt, 10th Street “Studio Building,” New York, 1857. (Online)

In the spring of 1859, Furness, having been first apprenticed to local architect John Fraser, expanded his architectural studies when he moved to New York to be one of the three students (the other two being William Ware and Edmund Quincy) who comprised Hunt’s “second class” who were studying under Hunt in his studio/atelier with the continuing Gambrill, Post, and Van Brunt.  Historian David Van Zanten has determined that Furness, while working in New York, was also introduced to Owen Jones’ ideas through the auspices of  his father, who had a friend in New York, H.W. Bellows who was a pastor and had just commissioned Jacob Wrey Mould to design a parsonage for his congregation.  

Jacob Wrey Mould, All Soul’s Parsonage, New York, 1855. Mould continued using the alternating bands of color. Note the church’s dome at the upper right. (O’Gorman, Furness)
Jacob Wrey Mould, All Soul’s Church, New York, 1855. (Online)

Mould was the British emigré architect who had worked for Jones and had only recently completed All-Souls’s Unitarian Church, the building that had earlier caught the eye of Peter B. Wight (see Chap. 2).  (Wight had just left New York to work in Chicago when Furness had arrived.)  While he was able to complete his two-year program in Hunt’s atelier where he had been exposed to the best architectural ideas of both France (via Hunt) and Great Britain (via Mould), the Civil War interrupted his education.  Although his parents had resolved that in one way or another Frank would be sent to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, following in the footsteps of Hunt, history had other plans for Furness and he enlisted in the Union Army, where he would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Following the war, Furness returned to Hunt’s studio as its office manager for two years, his war experience as an officer served him well when Hunt was out of the office. 

Cupid had other plans for him as he fell in love and married Philadelphian Fannie Fassitt, moving back to Philadelphia in late 1866.  It was also a wise move as he had an established client base among his and his family’s local businessmen. He partnered with his former mentor John Fraser and George Hewitt in the firm, Fraser, Furness, and Hewitt, choosing an office location across the street from the Jayne Building.  Prior to 1871, when Fraser departed for Washington, DC as the new Superintending Architect of the Department of the Treasurer, the trio designed a number of unimportant buildings while Furness endeavored to evolve a design process and style that attempted to be “American,” as Stillé and his father were calling for at that moment.

Fraser, Furness and Hewitt, Rodef Shalom Synagogue, Philadelphia, 1869. The alternating colored voussoirs from Mould’s All-Saints. The tapered-profile arches and the doubled, overstructured columns at the entrance will become trademark motifs of Furness. (O’Gorman, Furness)

FURTHER READING:

Lewis, Michael J. Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. New York: Norton, 2001.

O’Gorman, James F. The Architecture of Frank Furness. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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