The popular image of American collegiate architecture — majestic Gothic halls “with ivy-overgrown” to quote an old Penn song– was born in Philadelphia, the vision of two Quaker architects: Walter Cope (1860-1902) and John Stewardson (1858-1896).
Ironically, neither of them completed college. Cope took drafting classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, while Stewardson dropped out of Harvard and then apprenticed himself to Frank Furness. During their brief lifetimes, they transformed the look of American universities — their elegant buildings still grace the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr, Princeton, and Washington University in St. Louis. They popularized a style that became known as “Collegiate Gothic,” inspired by the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Ralph Adams Cram, a Boston-based architect who was the leading proponent of Gothic Revival church architecture in America, wrote admiringly of Cope & Stewardson in 1904: “The Philadelphia group has stood and is standing for nationality, for ethnic continuity, and for the impulses of Christian civilization.”*
During the late nineteenth century, college administrators debated on whether American universities should follow the British model — one that focused the undergraduate experience and knowledge for its own sake — or the German one — which emphasized graduate studies and “practical” scientific research. The University of Pennsylvania, which moved it its West Philadelphia campus in 1872, was firmly in the “German” camp. Its law and medical schools were nationally well-regarded, but its liberal arts undergraduate program was comparatively neglected by donors and administrators.
As America’s Gilded Age “Silicon Valley,” industrial Philadelphia was in the business of “facts and things.” The city needed engineers, architects, corporate lawyers, bankers, and medical professionals, not philosophers or artists. There was little room for the sentimental (and frankly indolent) good cheer that defined college life on the other side of the Atlantic. Penn needed laboratories and classrooms, which had to be clean, modern, and efficient. Students lived in boarding houses or commuted from home.
Dr. William Pepper Jr., an eminent Philadelphia surgeon, took Penn’s helm in 1883 and embarked on a massive fundraising and building campaign, founding the School of Engineering, Architecture, and the Wharton School of Business. He then hired acclaimed architect Frank Furness to design the world’s most modern university library. The enormous brick edifice (known today as the Fisher Fine Arts Library) had the cruciform footprint of a Gothic cathedral, but otherwise was unashamedly modern in its detailing and construction. As historian Michael J. Lewis wrote in his biography of Frank Furness: “There was nothing serene or contemplative in this building of higher learning but, rather a kind of vulgarity and loudness…No temple of passive contemplation, Furness’s library was a running engine, where knowledge was stored as latent energy to be applied to active pursuits.”***
The cosmopolitan Furness did not romanticize the past. Rather, he celebrated the present and the future. Furness might have used historical motifs, but freely distorted them as he saw fit. Industrial materials and modern construction techniques were not to be plastered or paneled over, but to be left exposed, and celebrated.
The new library, dedicated in February 1891, was only the first part of a monumental expansion program. Furness also sketched plans for an enormous Alumni Hall, which would be located cheek-by-jowl with the Library.****
The University of Pennsylvania was not alone in following the “practical” German model. In 1873, railroad tycoon Johns Hopkins donated $7 million (the largest philanthropic gift in American history at the time) to start a university in Baltimore that focused on graduate programs in the arts and sciences.** For his part, Harvard president Charles William Eliot took little interest in shaping the experience of his undergraduate population, preferring a laissez-faire approach that resulted in socially-stratified student body
Sadly, Furness never got the chance to build the rest of Penn’s campus. Provost Pepper, his greatest champion, worked himself to exhaustion, retiring in 1894 and dying four years later. His replacement, the sugar baron Charles Custis Harrison, felt that the best course of action was to model a new set of dormitories along “Oxbridge” lines. The fiery modernist Furness, Harrison decided, was not the man to design buildings in “ye olde English” manner, with historically-correct gargoyles, turrets, and oriels.****** Harrison was not only was well-connected — he was rich enough to pay for many of the university’s initiatives out of his own pocket.*******
Furness and Harrison probably had a clash of egos — the provost described the mercurial architect as being “intensely interested in his own architectural views.”******* Furness left the project in 1894 — his Alumni Auditorium was never built.
Under Harrison’s leadership, Penn shifted away from the German model towards the English one, with its greater emphasis on undergraduate education and socialization. Harrison hired the firm of Cope & Stewardson to design a new group of dormitories that became known as The Quadrangle. Along with a growing number of college administrators, Harrison concerned with the lack of community in the undergraduate population. These dormitories would also allow more students from outside Philadelphia to enroll at Penn. There were also political and racial undertones in the aesthetic shift towards the academic Gothic style. Gothic, unlike Furness’s modernism, was the language of “throne and altar.” In Victorian England, architects such as A.W.N. Pugin (designer of the Houses of Parliament) and critics such as John Ruskin (author of the influential The Seven Lamps of Architecture) were champions of its revival as the British national style.
During the 1890s and early 1900s, there was growing hostility among native-born Americans against the waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants settling in big industrial cities like Philadelphia. This fear was particularly acute among the upper classes. Administrators such as Abbott Lawrence Lowell at Harvard and Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia worried about how these new arrivals could be assimilated, if at all, into America’s educated elite. Lowell, who served as president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933, had the dubious distinction of being an honorary vice president of the Immigration Restriction League.
As beautiful as they were, the buildings were a kind of reassertion of English Protestant culture in American higher education. Ten years later, Ralph Adams Cram wrote of these groundbreaking buildings: “[T]hey are what they should be: scholastic in inspiration and effect, and scholastic of the type that is ours by inheritance; of Oxford and Cambridge, not of Padua or Wittenberg or Paris.” Of the tower erected to the memory of the alumni killed in the Spanish-America War, Cram mused: “American heroism harks back to English heroism; the blood shed before Manila and on San Juan Hill was the same blood that flowed at Bosworth Field, Flodden, and the Boyne. Therefore the British base of the design is indispensable, for such were the racial foundations.”********
As a result, the finicky Cram complained that much of the Quadrangle’s Elizabethan decorative detail had been “Germanized,” a “mistake” he declared that Cope & Stewardson did not repeat with their later buildings at Princeton. Ultimately, by the 1920s Collegiate Gothic spread to colleges and universities throughout the nation, and it did not fully die out until the advent of the International Style in the 1950s.
The Quadrangle and the Library survive to this today, and are among the most beloved landmarks on the Penn campus.
Yet there still is a nagging question: what if Frank Furness had designed more of this great university’s buildings?
*Ralph Adams Cram, “The Work of Messrs Cope and Stewardson,” The Architectural Record, Vol. XVI, No. 5, November 1904. p.413.
**The John Hopkins University: Facts at a Glance. http://webapps.jhu.edu/jhuniverse/information_about_hopkins/about_jhu/facts_at_a_glance/index.cfm
***Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 183.
****Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 186.
*****Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia, University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), p. 26.
******Charles Custis Harrison Society. http://makinghistory.upenn.edu/giftplanning/harrisonsociety
*******As quoted by George E. Thomas, Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: The Complete Works, Revised Edition, (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton Architectural Press, 1996). p.115.
********Ralph Adams Cram, “The Work of Messrs Cope and Stewardson,” The Architectural Record, Vol. XVI, No. 5, November 1904. p.417.