Our debt to Frank Furness

The once and future city of a great American architect

Pennsylvania Academy: Changing a city, one building at a time.
Pennsylvania Academy: Changing a city, one building at a time.

Like many Philadelphians, I'd often walked past the gothic Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts building at Broad and Cherry Streets without really noticing it. Not until I took a class in the history of American architecture did I become aware of this fabled 1876 jewel-box landmark and its equally fabled architect, Frank Furness. Although many of his structures no longer stand, it could be said that Furness (1839-1912), by his work and his example, literally shaped Philadelphia's built environment, one building at a time.

Even if you never set foot in the building's spectacularly ornamented Grand Stairwell, the Academy building offers visual excitement to the most jaded urban pedestrian. Unlike most buildings today, the Pennsylvania Academy had a narrow front stairway leading to an arched entrance. Where earlier architects used columns to support the structure, Furness used them as ornament.

The entrance design, minus the steps, was duplicated for the second-floor window above it, where the columns seemed almost to be growing out of the wall. The façade contains such colorful elements as red and black brick patterning, fanciful floral motifs, and a bas-relief frieze depicting famous artists of the past.

The style is familiar

Drexel University's Paul Peck Alumni Center (32nd and Market Streets) is another building I'd passed many times. Now, when I paid attention, I noticed this former bank building's resemblance to the Academy and figured Furness must have designed it. I checked the Drexel web site, and indeed he did.

More recently, I drove by the Wells Fargo Bank at Fourth and Girard and felt certain that Furness designed that building, too— an assumption that I confirmed the next time I did an Internet check. In that architecture class, I learned that I had actually spent time in a Furness building—the First Unitarian Church, at 22nd and Chestnut— without realizing it.

Fall from grace


Furness was so prolific, and his High Victorian Gothic style was so quirky, that many of his buildings survive today only in old photos. Some were larger and wider at the top than at ground level, and looked as if they were about to tip over. At his National Bank of the Republic, Furness built the stairwell going down the center of the building's front side, appearing to divide it in half.

Perhaps inevitably, the unique Furness style fell out of favor as Philadelphia itself evolved from a commercial city into an industrial powerhouse known as "the workshop of the world." A city enthralled by mass production was less likely to appreciate quirky individualism. In his later years, Furness found his services less and less in demand. The earliest demolitions of his works began barely a decade after he died in 1912.

World's largest train station

Over the next 50 years, more of his buildings came down, especially after World War II as American cities changed radically yet again. Most symbolically, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station was the world's largest railroad passenger terminal after Furness expanded it in 1892-93, and the Pennsylvania itself was the world's largest corporation. At the same time, Furness designed the railroad's "Chinese Wall," the stone viaduct that sliced through Center City from Broad and Market to West Philadelphia. But by the 1950s the Pennsylvania Railroad was beginning its downward spiral, and both the Chinese Wall and Broad Street Station were demolished to make way for the urban revival that would soon bring towering skyscrapers and revitalized shopping districts downtown.

Fortunately, not all things change. Some of Furness's buildings, like the Pennsylvania Academy and the Peck Center, still have a practical use, not to mention landmark status. The work of his disciples remains, too: One of his apprentices was Louis Sullivan, known as the father of the modern skyscraper; and Sullivan in turn mentored Frank Lloyd Wright. Although Philadelphia looks vastly different today than it did during Furness's time, his footprints remain— as Philadelphians can easily discover on their own, just as I did.♦


To read responses, click here and here.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.