Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia_County, PA

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The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Selected text, below, was excerpted from a copy of the original National Register nomination document. Photo from Pennsylvania Bureau of Historic Preservation (

The Academy followed closely the specifications of the original building committee: "a two story, fireproof building with top lighted galleries of varying sizes on the upper floor, all accessible from the main stair; and a lower-floor containing library, lecture room, galleries for casts, and a painting room well lighted from a window close to the ceiling." (Both Fairman Rogers and John Sartain claim credit for these specifications as Board members)

The building is bounded by Broad Street (facade, east) 80 feet Cherry Street. (north flank) 170 feet, Burns Street (east) 50 feet and Appletree Street (south) 170 feet, the basement contains museum storage and some work rooms. The plan throughout is a central corridor (approximately 15' wide) with rooms to the left and right.

The first floor contains offices and art studios and a library. There is a small mezzanine with a Board Room, conservation laboratory and plumbing. The second or Gallery level houses the museum collections — the usual main corridor is intersected by a great rotunda [52'6" x 38'2"]. The attic contains an elaborate system of iron trusses with exposed iron "I" beams supported on doubled and banded iron columns with capitals that grasp the beam. Other iron trusses are visible in the lights above the studios (north) on the first floor. The details of cast iron railing and, lamps contain floral patterns which are probably derived from Owen Jones "Grammar of Ornament" but are transformed into an organic architectural expression that are unique to Furness. (Sullivan was deeply affected by this). It is also typical of Furness to compress the entrance space into a narrow foyer and then open the area to a monumental stair that has two ramps, then comes together at the mezzanine and breaks again rising to the second floor. The rails, walls, and ceiling are covered with incised floral patterns in red, gold, and blue the total effect is of a colorful dazzling space, what James O'Gorman calls "one of the most impressive spaces in American Architecture of any period." (Philadelphia Museum of Art 1973.)

The Broad Street facade is 65' high, is in the usual tripartite composition with a high central portion over two lower wings. The roofs are mansard and a large Gothic window is placed over the central double door. Originally a Greek Kore stood on the pedestal in front of the window and was related to the bas-reliefs to the left and right. The reliefs were carved by Alexander Kemp who had been one of Alexander Milne Calder's assistants on the sculptural program for City Hall. The rich exterior surfaces are described vividly by Professor O'Gorman, they "are broken into interlocking rectangular panels and activated by a busy variety of forms and materials: rusticated brownstone, dressed sandstone, polished granite, pointed and ??? arches, red pressed brick set in black mortar, diaper patterns all in undulating red and black brick, painted glass, carved reliefs, floriated merlons, and on and on. It was built of load-bearing walls with "I" beams laid across them and the arches constructed of brick were in filled with sand making the building as fire-proof as possible in 1876.

Only some changes have been made since 1876 — iron roof cresting and ventilators have been removed, some lamps are gone, stainless steel and glass replaces the old doors and sections of the Minton tile floor have been replaced. A renovation-restoration has begun to celebrate 100 years of distinguished service to the arts.

Frank Furness is best remembered outside of his native city because of a brilliant, rebellious, romantic young draftsmen employed for a time in his architectural offices — Louis Sullivan. He wrote of Furness in his Autobiography of an Idea and it is from Furness that Sullivan honed his skill as a delineator and acquired his affection for detail. In his own city, Frank Furness designed "controversial," structures but he was tolerated because he had distinguished family connections; his father was a well known Unitarian minister and his brother a famous Shakespearean scholar. Many of his commissions must be credited to his social position — he had also distinguished himself as a cavalry officer as well as holding the Medal of Honor for action in the Civil War — the only American architect to have been so honored.

His career included training with Richard Morris Hunt in his atelier in New York, the first school for training professional architects in America. Furness also derived elements for his highly personal style from English Victorian Gothic (Ruskin and Butterfield) as well as Second Empire French styles (Labrouste and Viollet-le-Duc).

The first Furness firm in Philadelphia was a triumvirate: John Fraser who had designed the Union League in 1854 and George W. Hewitt who had worked for John Notman on Holy Trinity Church at Rittenhouse Square. Fraser left for Washington in 1871. The first important commission the firm won was the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts [1871-1876] and it established a national reputation for Furness and Hewitt. This early masterpiece of Furness' career was finished in time for the Centennial celebrations (April 1876).

The Pennsylvania Academy itself had occupied earlier structures. It was the first art school in the United States, the list of graduates included our most distinguished painters and sculptors. Thomas Eakins was a member of an outstanding faculty that has always been one of the finest professional teaching staffs. The museum collection is one of the best collections of American Art in the United States.

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