Why We Love Frank Furness

Chestnut Street from Third, looking West, with Frank Furness’ National Bank of the Republic (right) and Guarantee Trust and Safe Deposit Company (left). Both are demolished.

We didn’t always. Love Frank Furness, that is.

“The man came out of the [Civil War] a swearing, swaggering, bewhiskered figure of martial bearing, a bulldog personality ready to challenge the architectural status quo,” James O’Gorman tells us in a review of Michael Lewis’ book, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. “He organized his office like a military unit. Having waged war, Furness would now ‘wage architecture,’ charging headlong at building programs, competitors, and critics alike. The impact of his war experiences coursed through his professional life.”

“But there was more to his work than militaristic fury,” O’Gorman assures us. For those same late-19th century decades when technology, industry and railroading dominated Philadelphia on its own terms, Furness’ work connected truth and beauty. His buildings, according to George Thomas, had “the raw impact of giant machines, even as they transcended their materials.” All of his buildings, certainly his railroad stations, but also his libraries and schools, operated as grand mechanical-aesthetical projects. Furness’ library at the University of Pennsylvania, Lewis tells us, “has been called a collision between a cathedral and a railroad station;” his Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts “a laboratory for experimenting with new technology” with machine-like balusters working their eccentric charms.

We are reminded that Furness’ clients were engineers in a world newly-refashioned by their innovations, folk who relished “visible iron trusses or riveted iron girders, the industrial repertoire.” Furness gave them that, and more. He considered the interlocking elements of his buildings “legible pieces of machinery” and he moved them, as Lewis put it, “from the train shed to the lobby and the salon.” But these buildings didn’t feel like machines. Exuberant expression was the heart and soul of Furness. As the 17-year old Louis Sullivan, a “father of modernism” put it after his first encounter with a Furness building: “Here was something fresh and fair…a human note, as though someone were talking.”

But Furness’ individualistic work, his “overscaled and willfully distorted details,” his “clashing colors,” his decorative “wry comments on mechanical details, exposed industrial materials, muscular massing, top-heavy loading, dizzying compositional juxtapositions” soon became too much exuberance for an age of rising restraint. Furness not only grew out of style, he grew to be despised—and demolished. “He  was  for  all practical  purposes consigned to  the junk  heap of history for  the  first  half  of  the  twentieth century, wrote Ian Quimby, because he embodied the worst of Victorian excess in the eyes of modernists.”

One early 20th-century critic wrote off Furness’s buildings as “the low-water mark in American architecture.” Another damned his work as a corrupting influence, citing the Provident Life and Trust Building for “meretricious ugliness.” Robert Venturi remembered “loving to hate those squat columns as my father drove me past the Provident Life and Trust Company on Chestnut Street in the thirties”–not long before its demise. No matter that this building and the nearby National Bank of the Republic were two of Philadelphia’s most interesting, most compelling structures. Public opinion had swung against “strident individualism” and the kind of “directness of expression” that would later come to define the best architecture of the late 20th century. No matter, as Lewis put it, that Furness “aspired to truth as much as beauty.”  No matter that Venturi and others would soon find Furness’ forms “tense with a feeling of life and reality” and develop an “absolute unrestrained adoration and respect for this work.” In mid-20th century Philadelphia, the days of buildings audacious enough to “echo mannerism and predict postmodernism”—buildings that fit “somewhere between Michelangelo and Michael Graves”—were numbered.

But the days when Furness’ ideas and the memory of his masterpieces, both extinguished and extant, mean something are not numbered—nor will they ever be again. We now know what Furness achieved. Like Walt Whitman, “he turned the process around.” Writes Lewis: he “looked for the poetry in the vital forces of the modern age, and sought the flower in the machine.”

A century later, Philadelphians find confidence in the truth and a healthy appetite for such poetry. Today we celebrate the genius of Frank Furness.