In October 1876, the American Architect and Building News recommended that American architects, especially the young, impressionable, and up-and-coming ones (including John Wellborn Root), 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.”
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.
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.
“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-span 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.
(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: “firstname.lastname@example.org”)
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.