Furness & Hewitt were also awarded the commission to design the main branch of the recently chartered Centennial Bank that was intended to be the financial agent for the Fair. Both the bank and the Art Academy were completed just before the grand opening of the Fair on May 10, 1876. There were two other significant examples of Furness’ designs, in addition to a number of new houses, that an American Architect correspondent in the October 14, 1876, issue recommended to visiting architects:
“(His building) not only depends upon its detail for effect, but the whole thing is itself a detail. There is not one of Mr. Furness’s more important buildings which is not full of interest; but the success of them is almost inversely as their size, and their strength in detail rather than in composition… Among the largest of his buildings are the new Fine Arts Building, and a building for a safe deposit company on Chestnut Street (the Guarantee Trust Building). It is in buildings of moderate size that Mr. Furness is seen at his best, where the effect aimed at is of variety and picturesqueness, rather than of monumental grandeur; which is another way of saying that his best work is rather decorative than architectural… a little arsenal on Twentieth-first Street, near Market (the First Troop Armory), a parapeted building of red and black brick on a basement of gray rubble, is designed with great spirit and signal success.”
As the author stated, it was Furness’ details, especially the way in which he manipulated Philadelphia’s red pressed brick in what seemed to be an unlimited number of details that caught the attention of not only the American Architect’s correspondent, but also of many of Chicago’s young architects who would play major roles in the 1880s.
In fact, American Architect’s correspondent C. H. Blackall in 1887 would credit the Philadelphia Fair as having “prepared the way for the architectural triumphs which have since been such a credit to” Chicago. To the extent that this statement was true, the great majority of influence asserted upon Chicago’s young architects by Philadelphia was the result of Furness’s independently thought-out designs that were complemented with his superbly crafted details in brick.
5.15. SUMMARY: HOW PHILADELPHIA INFLUENCED THE CHICAGO SCHOOL
Frank Furness would design over 600 buildings in Philadelphia and its local region until his death in 1912. As he grew more confident, they became more and more idiosyncratic, taking Labrouste’s Functional Expressionism to the extreme in generating new forms by breaking away from the bonds of symmetry, designing jarring juxtapositions of dissimilar forms that were generated for the function of each individual form. While these were accepted, and sometimes praised in his tolerant hometown, he was moving in the wrong direction, as H.H. Richardson was leading America’s architects to seek Owen Jones’ objective of “Repose” in both form and color. Furness’ work would fall into obscurity, until it began to be rediscovered and documented. This began with Lewis Mumford tracing the influences of Louis Sullivan in his 1931 The Brown Decades, and came full circle with Robert Venturi’s campaign to restore Furness to his rightful place in American architecture with his 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, a title that could also be easily applied to Furness’ buildings.
As far as Furness’ influence on Chicago, the 17-year old prodigy Louis Sullivan, after having worked in the office for some six months, would take to Chicago in late 1873 Furness’ call/search for a modern American architecture as well as his design process in developing abstracted natural ornamental motifs. During his trip to the Fair, the 26-year old polymath John Root would absorb Furness’ mastery of brick detailing in his recently-completed buildings and employ these in Chicago’s first skyscrapers in the coming decade.
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.
Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
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