Architect Frank Furness (1839–1912) designed more than 600 buildings, most in the Philadelphia area. Toward the end of his life, his bold style fell out of fashion, and many of his significant works were demolished in the 20th century. Among his most important surviving buildings are the University of Pennsylvania Library (now the Fisher Fine Arts Library), the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). As part of a city-wide celebration of Furness on the 100th anniversary of his death, and in conjunction with noted scholar and architecture historian George Thomas, PAFA will host the exhibition, “Building a Masterpiece: Frank Furness’ Factory for Art.” The exhibition celebrates the legacy of this prolific and talented American architect with a showcase of 32 architectural drawings documenting the evolution of the revolutionary Furness-designed Historic Landmark Building.
Coordinated by guest curator, George Thomas, and PAFA’s curator of historical American art, Anna O. Marley, the exhibition documents the fascinating architectural process involved with building Furness’ early masterpiece that “collided logistical planning based on factory designs with cutting edge engineering and steel construction screened behind a billboard-like façade,” as Thomas describes.
The process of designing and constructing PAFA is revealed in the original collection of conserved ink and watercolor drawings that Furness and his partner George Watson Hewitt created to win the competition and build the Academy’s National Historic Landmark. This exhibition presents the rare, and in some cases, never before seen, competitors’ schemes and Furness drawings, alongside related material documenting the life of the building dating back to 1876.
The drawings reveal that Furness planned for electricity in the building, which was completed five years before the Brush Electric Light Company, PECO’s antecedent, opened for business. They also show that the building depends on structural steel, in the form of massive I-beams, for its structural integrity, and that its signature skylight ground floor studio spaces are made possible by a massive steel truss running the length of the north side of the building. This truss supports the second floor galleries, and allows for the lower north wall to be a non-load bearing, or curtain, wall. Curtain walls are integral to virtually every modern skyscraper, pointing out just how revolutionary and future-oriented this building was.
The Historic Landmark Building is hailed as one of Furness’ most exuberant masterworks and revolutionary modern day landmarks. Taking heavily from American industry, Furness’ design of the building’s exterior exposes the great iron truss holding up the second floor which houses a large rose window that winks out over Broad Street in a rainbow of American cathedral glass, above the entry lobby lined with elaborate tilework.
“Our Frank Furness-designed building is the heart of PAFA,” says Harry Philbrick, the Edna S. Tuttleman Director of the Museum. “Still functioning exactly as it was designed nearly 140 years ago, the galleries are an unparalleled place to view art, and the north-lit studios and Cast Hall are an inspiration to the artists who work in them. The building reflects both the hand-crafted aesthetic of its era, as well as the innovative design, engineering and construction techniques of the period’s most progressive designer.”
The “Building a Masterpiece: Frank Furness’ Factory for Art” exhibition is on view from Sept. 29 to Dec. 30 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) Historic Landmark Building, 118 North Broad St. For more information, visit www.pafa.org.