While there is no shortage of breathtaking works on the walls of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Historic Landmark Building, some of its greatest masterpieces are the walls themselves. Architect Frank Furness won his first major competition to design the now-iconic building, the visceral eccentricity of which has been one of North Broad Street’s most striking features since 1876.
“Our building is a national treasure,” says Anna Marley, curator of the exhibition “Building a Masterpiece: Frank Furness’ Factory for Art,” which traces the building’s creation through materials from the PAFA museum’s archives.
The exhibition is part of a citywide celebration marking the centennial of the death of an architect whose mark is still very visible on Philadelphia. Throughout the year, several institutions will be mounting Furness exhibitions for “Revolutionary Philly: Making Buildings Out of His Head.”
Frank Furness was born in Philly and did most of his work in the area — the First Unitarian Church, the library at Penn, hundreds of stations for now-crumbling railroads. But his bold mélange of styles fell out of favor after his death in 1912, and many of his buildings were demolished during Edmund Bacon’s push to reshape the city around expressways and transit during the 1950s and ’60s.
Architect and Penn lecturer George E. Thomas hopes to both reinvigorate local awareness of Furness’ work and rescue the architect’s personal reputation from accusations of madness, earned via an infamously volcanic temper and ferocious tantrums directed at his staff.
“I wanted to present a new, more useful understanding of him not as some wild man,” Thomas explains, “but as someone who was working at the core of the evolving strategies for modern architecture and design.”
Penn, on whose campus sits the red, cathedral-like Fisher Fine Arts Library at 34th and Walnut streets, will present a show focusing on Furness’ library designs; Drexel’s Alumni Center, housed in Furness’ stunning Centennial Bank, will offer a digital display of his banks. The Art Museum’s show uses a Furness-designed desk to investigate his mentorship of Louis Sullivan, while the Library Company will concentrate on his railroad work.
The railroad stations “gave us the chance to talk about the bigger topic of creating brand identities for major corporations,” Thomas says. “Furness worked for the Reading, the B&O and the Pennsy. It was as if one guy were designing for Ford, GM and Chrysler, or HP, Dell and Apple.”
After the exhibits close, Thomas plans to maintain Furness’ online presence. The centennial’s website will be converted to a modern showcase for Furness’ work and an app is in the works that will point users to nearby Furness buildings. Thomas says there’s no official count of Furness’ work in the city, but cites close to 800 known commissions, around one-third of them still standing.
“We’re still finding things,” Thomas laughs. “It’s like he’s still hiding out in some basement, cranking out buildings.”
For a list of all the exhibitions and events associated with “Frank Furness — Revolutionary Philly: Making Buildings Out of His Head,” go to frankfurness.org.
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