5.13. THE PENNSYLVANIA ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS

In October 1876, the American Architect and Building News recommended that American architects, especially the young, impressionable, and up-and-coming ones, should go out of their way while in Philadelphia to study the buildings of Furness:

“By far the most important element in the recent building of Philadelphia is Mr. Furness’s work.  Nobody would think of calling it commonplace; and it is so far from being scholastic that a good deal of it is hard to classify… Whatever else Mr. Furness’s work is, it is full of life; and the life of it would atone for much worse faults than it shows.  It is altogether the most interesting thing, to a student of architecture, to be seen in Philadelphia.  It is the work of an architect full of spirit and invention, who has not yet reached the prime of his powers; and it only needs the chastening of its exuberances into sobriety and repose, to earn for its author a higher rank, even, than that he now deserves, of a clever, original, and brilliant architect.”

Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art. The range of material colors in the Broad Street elevation. Note his iconic tapered-profile pointed arches and the doubled columns. Missing from the Synagogue design are the color-alternating voussoirs that have been replaced with woven fabric-like gridwork of alternating fields of red brick and sandstone. (Online)

Of course, the building this article was referring to was the new Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Furness took as his point of departure in his design for the new building for the country’s first art museum and school, the Louvre’s Pavillon de la Bibliothèque, a bow to his mentor Hunt who had been one of the building’s construction supervisors during his final year in Paris. 

Hector Lefuel (with Richard Morris Hunt), Pavillon de la Bibliothèque, Palais du Louvre, Paris, 1854. (Author’s collection)

The winning design was a blend of contemporary French and British ideas: The Néo-Grec is reflected in its collection of individual, iconoclastic forms, the British High Victorian polychromy was achieved on the exterior with a contrasting palette that included red pressed brick in black mortar, patterned black and red brick, rusticated brownstone, smooth-faced sandstone, polished granite, and purple terra cotta.  I am not interested here in the building’s planning, so I will move on to the building’s details and how they manifested the four above mentioned influences. 

Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Broad Street Entry. Note the redundant column located under the center of the arch and the doubled columns in the second range. (Online)

“Central” to the design of the entrance elevation is the gratuitous column he has located in the center of the entrance.  Furness has established his reputation as being American architecture’s “Bad boy” with this one move, “Archus interruptus,” if you will pardon my “French.”  The last place to put a column, an architecture student is told, is under the middle of an arch, and yet, Furness did exactly that in his first major building.  There are two reasons for this prohibition.  First, the reason to use an arch is to span a long distance with masonry.  Placing a column under the arch completely negates the structural purpose for and the extra cost of the arch.  The extra column shortens the span that now allows the use of a beam, or two shorter arches.  Second, it is human nature to want to enter a space, especially an axially-designed space, on axis.  The middle column precludes such an entry, forcing an awkward (in this case on purpose) transition into the building.

In this next series of images of the interior, please note the use of details taken from Viollet-le-Duc: the corbel (a cantilevered support, typically for a column), the dwarf column, and a collar or ring around the column located exactly at the middle of the column (this increases the section of the column section at the column’s weakest point, i.e. where it would first start to buckle under its load, and therefore, permits the column section to be correspondingly reduced: structural rationalism).  And speaking of structure, the last image shows Furness’ use of exposed iron beams, again following the influence of Viollet-le-Duc’s example.

Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art. Main Stairway. Note the use of corbels and collars at the midsection of the columns, indicating the influence of Viollet-le-Duc. (Online)
Viollet-le-Duc, Palais des Papes, project for large chapel with vaults for the Great Audience, Avignon, Vaucluse, France. (Entretiens sur l’Architecture, 1863.)
Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art. Second level. Note the use of dwarf columns and column collars, again revealing the influence of Viollet-le-Duc. Also note Furness’ signature motifs of doubled columns and the tapered section pointed arches. (Online)
Viollet-le-Duc, design for a 46-meter span polyhedral vaulted hall, employing iron and stone. (Entretiens sur l’Architecture, 1863.)
Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art. Main Staircase at Second Floor. The tapered-profile arches and doubled columns are typical of Furness. (Online)
Viollet-le-Duc, Masonry, Market Hall. (Entretiens sur l’Architecture, 1863.)
Furness and Hewitt, Pennsylvania Academy of Art. Second Floor Gallery. Note the exposed iron beams. While Viollet-le-Duc was calling for the use and expression of iron in architecture, the impact of the urban holocausts of Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) that will argue against the use of unprotected iron had not occurred when the building was being designed. Enjoy the sight of unprotected iron beams, they will soon disappear from sight (fireproofed) in American buildings for the next 100 years. (Online)

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

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.

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