Reverend William Henry Furness (1802-1896), the minister of Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church, complained that Philadelphia’s architects should liberate themselves from the demure and boring “Quaker style…marble steps, and wooden shutters.” Yet exuberant ornamentation was not only anathema to Philadelphia taste, but it was also expensive, even in the Victorian era of cheap labor. Reverend Furness raised his own family in a plain but substantial “Quaker style” rowhouse at 1426 Pine Street. It was well-situated and within the bounds of the Furness family’s middle class budget.
His son Frank Furness broke the mold of Philadelphia’s sober and conservative architectural language, designing buildings in an aggressive, flamboyant style that still captures our imagination. A fine Frank Furness building, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Library and the First Unitarian Church (built for his father’s congregation), shouted “look at me” in defiance of all Quaker modesty.
However, when it came to his own house, the architect Frank Furness found himself in the same budgetary dilemma as his minister father. Although he rubbed elbows with some of Philadelphia’s richest families, he and his wife Fannie could not afford to build a showcase house for himself, of his own design. His architecture practice, although financially successful for the last quarter of the 19th century, simply did not bring in enough money for him to travel in the Rittenhouse Square set. So, he and his wife did the next best thing: purchasing a proper four story townhouse in the Washington Square neighborhood, which was still respectable but had fallen in status somewhat in since the Civil War. It was still safely between the “acceptable” boundaries of Market and Pine streets, a calling card detail to which Furness’s client base would have paid attention.
If Furness’s house at 711 Locust Street was Quaker plain on the outside, the architect made the interior a glittering showcase of his own design skill. Yet it was the “smoking room” that really caught the attention of the visitors, if they were allowed into Furness’s inner-sanctum. Or, in modern parlance, his “man cave.”
The “smoking room” at 711 Locust Street looked as if it had been plucked from a Rocky Mountain hunting cabin and dropped right in Center City Philadelphia. It was filled with Native American art and textiles, pelts, unframed prints, antlers, and guns that Furness had purchased on his frequent journeys out west. Like his fellow “proper Philadelphian” creative-type Owen Wister, he was fascinated with the ethos (and mythos) of the American West. Here, in this rustic one story addition that he built with his own hands, he would entertain his comrades from his Civil War cavalry regiment, as well as John Foster Kirk of Lippincott’s Monthly and the poet Walt Whitman.
In the early 1880s, the publisher D. Appleton & Company released Artistic Houses, a lavish book that featured interior photographs of some of the grandest homes on the United States, including several in Philadelphia. They were built by tycoons such as William Henry Vanderbilt, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Marshall Field. Yet there was only featured photograph of the inside of an architect’s home: the smoking room at 711 Locust Street. The editors of Artistic Houses wrote of this space:
What Mr. Furness has really achieved, from a chromatic point of view, can barely be surmised from our reproduction in black and white…but those who have seen the interior of this cozy little sanctum will agree that, in felicity of arrangement, both of lines and tones, it is artistic to a high degree, while its literary interest, if we must express ourselves–its absolutely unique.
Frank Furness’s good fortune–an endless flow of commissions and long evenings with bohemian friends in the “smoking room”–did not last. By the early 1900s, his vibrant, bold architecture of Furness & Evans was woefully out-of-fashion, and he fell on hard times. He moved out to Media to be near his beloved brother Horace and other extended family. He died in 1912. His Locust Street townhouse, with its famous smoking room, is now a distant memory.
Artistic Houses, Volume II (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1883-84), https://archive.org/stream/Artistichouses2A/Artistichouses2A_djvu.txt, accessed November 14, 2019.
Arnold Lews, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1987), p.101.
Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), pp.142-143.
James F. O’Gorman, The Architecture of Frank Furness (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973), p.15.