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Frank Furness

Frank Furness, Architect [1839-1912]

Frank Furness' architectural legacy permeates Southeastern Pennsylvania. A book that catalogs his complete works [†] lists more than 200 designs to be found in the counties surrounding Philadelphia (including many residential properties), and many hundreds more within the City Proper. Other Furness works are found in Delaware, New Jersey, Maine, and Rhode Island.

Furness was a man of his age, immersed in its most powerful currents and forces. He drew spiritual force from the movements of abolition and transcendentalism, just as he drew physical force from Victorian industry, railroads, and capitalism. He took the intellectual energy of the first half of the century and married it with the physical energy of the second half. Out of these elements he created the most vital depiction of American life in terms of architecture. His achievement constitutes the architectural counterpart to Mark Twain's literature, Thomas Nast's caricature, and Thomas Eakin's paintings.

It remains a paradox that the most conservative of America's older cities, Philadelphia, should have produced its most eccentric architect. But the staid Quaker city seems to have acted as a kind of pressure cooker, in which Furness's creative forces built up until they exploded. The effects of that explosion, transmitted through his students–above all, Louis Sullivan and George Howe (and their students in turn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn, respectively)–and passed on to American architecture in the twentieth century, form the subject of this book.

Frank Furness was the most unique and prolific American architect of the nineteenth century. Apprenticed in the atelier of Richard Morris Hunt and inspired by the versus of his father's friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Furness derived architectural form from the representation of purpose and turned architecture away from history toward the forces of the present. His art has a visceral immediacy that is unprecedented. It spread to the midwest through his disciple, Louis Sullivan, and permeated the underlying values of Philadelphia architecture, ultimately shaping the present "Philadelphia School" centered around Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi.

(From the book jacket: Frank Furness: The Complete Works; George E. Thomas, Jeffrey A. Cohen, & Michael J. Lewis; Princeton Architectural Press, 1996—Revised Edition.

Frank Furness was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1839. He worked as a draughtsman in the Philadelphia office of John Fraser, after which he studied at the New York atelier of Richard Morris Hunt (1859-61). He set up professional practices with a series of different partners starting in 1867.

Furness never had the opportunity to travel abroad so his style, although influenced by Ruskin and Viollet-le-duc, achieved an originality that might have been impossible with first hand experience of European architecture. Eclectic and boldly polychromatic, his buildings were often dramatically over-scaled and boldly articulated with a variety of sculptural forms and materials.

The lavish Victorian style employed by Furness during the late nineteenth century proved unattractive to twentieth century taste and few of his buildings remain in their original forms.

Furness died in Media, Pennsylvania in 1912.

Source: Philadelphia Architects and Building Project (PAB);; a partnership of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.

Furness's physiognomic architecture is not merely the oddity of personal style, for it was in consonance with the demands of his age. He took the transactions of modern life and depicted them in epic terms of a Darwinian struggle for existence. His Provident Life and Trust Bank pushed its way into the street like a man reeling, a Gothic colossus in three shades of granite; from its brow a savage frieze flared out like a crown of thorns, as if in agony. And yet under these battlements took place the calm and orderly business of depositing checks and tallying the accounts of staid Quaker customers.

Such buildings were Gothic, at least in style. This was only his subject matter, however, and his buildings were no more Gothic than the jumbled elements of a dream are the accurate transcript of a day's happenings. Furness had no use for the fussy grammar of medieval archaeology; like Michelangelo, the first man to make architecture a vehicle of personal expression, he willfully distorted his forms to convey emotion and physical sensation, imparting to them something of the physical awareness of his own body -- or so it can seem. Furness's friends had a simpler explanation: his buildings were "merely the rebellion of a freedom-loving soul that refused to be bound by rules."

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

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