Frank Furness: Inventing Modern

1.PAFA 1871
The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on North Broad Street in Philadelphia.

By Linda Shopes

If buildings define a place, then the structures designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness (1839 – 1912) define the Philadelphia region as an industrial powerhouse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Ranging from the commercial to the residential, the industrial to the civic, Furness buildings in their form, materials, modes of construction, and aesthetic took inspiration from this “workshop of the world” and shaped notions of the modern. This is the animating vision of the Furness Festival, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of Furness’s death, currently underway in Philadelphia; and one Festival organizer George E. Thomas hopes will move our understanding of Philadelphia away from the “ancestor worship of 1776” and towards an appreciation of the region as a center of an energetic creativity.

The Festival itself, with support from the William Penn Foundation, is a multi-site, multi-format public humanities program, including exhibits, programs, a website and associated media tools, and a book by Thomas, all designed to place Furness and his work in broad context.   Most notable is the high degree of collaboration the Festival has entailed among at least twelve Philadelphia-area cultural institutions.  With his commanding knowledge of Furness’s work and the historical materials that document it, Thomas, an historian, partner in the firm CivicVisions, and principal author of Frank Furness, The Complete Works, and his partner, architect Susan Snyder, initiated a series of exhibits around the region that both draw upon the collections of individual institutions and collectively develop an understanding of the range, depth, and significance of Furness’s work by linking it to the culture that gave Furness his commissions and values.

So, for example, Building a Masterpiece: Frank Furness’ Factory for Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), displays the winning drawings submitted by the firm of Furness & Hewett in 1871 to the competition to build PAFA’s landmark building and contrasts them with the losing scheme by Henry A. Sims. The building itself exemplifies the innovative industrial forms and materials as well as the detailed logistical planning that characterize Furness’s work.  At the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frank Furness: Working on the Railroads mines the Library’s archive of railroad-related materials to present examples of Furness’s nearly two hundred commissions for the Philadelphia & Reading, Baltimore & Ohio, and Pennsylvania railroads, themselves the engines of the industrial age.  At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Learning from Frank Furness: Louis Sullivan in 1873 juxtaposes the desk and bookcase Furness designed for his brother Horace Howard Furness with architectural drawings and architectural elements from Chicago’s Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store by Sullivan, who in 1873 briefly worked in Furness’s firm.  In their comparable styles and forms, rich with ornamentation, they illustrate Furness’s seminal influence upon Sullivan.  Six additional exhibits are currently on display; two have already closed.

According to Sarah Weatherwax, curator of prints and photographs at the Library Company, who coordinated the Furness exhibit there, Working on the Railroads was a logical fit with the institution’s collections and on-going exhibition program.  The collaboration was especially beneficial in that “it brought in new audiences to the Library Company, including railroad fans,” who now know about the Library’s railroad collections.  Additionally, attending monthly planning meetings with representatives of other institutions participating in the Festival has been “a way to cultivate networks that may be of future benefit.”

An extensive calendar of programs are extending the reach of Festival exhibits.  On November 30 – December 2, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia will host Frank Furness: His City, His World, as its Roger W. Moss Symposium.  The symposium features a keynote address by Andrew Saint, editor of the Survey of London, the official history of London’s buildings; presentations by Furness experts; and a tour of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of Furness’s signature buildings and a key partner in the Furness Festival.  Advance registration is required; for further information, go to

Frank Furness c 1890, at about age 50; courtesy Furness 2012: Inventing Modern.

The Festival’s website,, demonstrates the project’s intellectual heft, communicating in-depth knowledge about Furness, his work, and his world, subjects that  Thomas’s book, The Poetry of the Present: Frank Furness’ Architecture in the Age of the Great Machine, forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press, will expand upon considerably.  Notably, the site identifies key influences on Furness’s work:  these include the culture of technological innovation nurtured by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, established in  1824, and the network of engineers and industrialists it brought together – many of whom commissioned Furness to build their homes and businesses; and the ethic of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a lifelong friend of Furness’s minister father and a frequent guest in his home, whose aphorism “self trust is the first secret of success” might be understood as the Furness family’s guiding principle and who promoted the transcendentalist belief that design in nature was both purposeful and visually evident.  These influences converged in the “form follows function” theory of design that inspired Furness to create structures that looked not to Europe and the conventions of the past but to the materials and purposes of the American present.

The site also traces Furness’s influence upon Sullivan, as well as on William Price and George Howe, both of whom were employed by Furness’s firm; and through these men, upon Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, Louis Kahn, and Robert Venturi, all well recognized masters of modernism.  It includes as well a personal and professional biography of Furness, a list of his projects, a bibliography of references and resources, and a complete listing of Festival exhibitions and programs.

Under development is a map of Furness buildings that will also be available as a smart phone app.  According to Thomas, the Festival “wants to do Facebook and probably will set up a blog to give added momentum to the project, while maintaining the website as a way to keep Furness alive in public consciousness.”  Long term, however, the goal is “reshaping American architectural history away from the current legend of the European  genesis of modernism and towards a broader cultural understanding of architecture.”

For now, walking the streets of Philadelphia and environs, armed with an historical imagination and perhaps squinting a bit as you look at Furness buildings, you just might begin to grasp the local origins and international significance of his work.

Linda Shopes is a contributing editor to Cross Ties.

Our slideshow images were made available by  Readers may explore featured Furness buildings further, or discover works not mentioned above at