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January 5, 2002
Michael J. Lewis Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. 256 pp.; 200 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0393730638)
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Frank Furness was one of America’s premier architects. It will come as something of a shock, then, to learn that with the publication of Michael Lewis’s Frank Furness, we have just three books devoted to the work of this nineteenth-century Philadelphia-based designer: an exhibition catalogue, The Architecture of Frank Furness by James F. O’Gorman in 1973; a catalogue raisonné, Frank Furness: The Complete Works by George E. Thomas, Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Michael J. Lewis in 1991; and a slim 1996 monograph, University of Pennsylvania Library (Architecture in Detail) by Edward Bosley on Furness’s library at the school. In contrast to such late and minimal recognition of one of the first “signature” architects in the United States, Furness’s contemporary, Boston’s H. H. Richardson, was the subject of a lavish monograph published in 1888, just two years after his death, and since then has been the hero of a steady stream of books—three of which came out in 1997 alone. Furness’s paltry bibliography stands in even starker contrast to the towering stack of volumes dedicated to Chicago’s Louis Sullivan, who was briefly his protégé, or the squab-trillion-and-counting devoted to his student, Frank Lloyd Wright.

I once thought this lack of national interest in Furness’s work (he was almost totally forgotten from his death in 1912 until the 1960s) was because of his seemingly inexplicable, eccentric, in-your-face buildings, but that was before Frank Gehry began squeezing out one over-the-top design after another to rave reviews (and a growing number of books devoted to his work). No, the reason for that neglect has to do with location, location, location. Furness, now recognized by cognoscenti as one of the most original—if not the most original—and accomplished architects of the industrial city, labored in the black hole of Philadelphia. With the exception of his contemporary Thomas Eakins, who had a New York outlet, for the rest of the country the late nineteenth-century Quaker City remains a cultural Bermuda triangle. Chicago, New York, and Boston have drawn all eyes. It is no surprise that those who have published books about Furness’s amazing work were or are resident Philadelphians. His achievement deserves broader recognition.

With Lewis’s brilliant critical biography, the rest of the country may finally come to realize what it has missed. The story is a rich one, and in Frank Furness it is told in an impeccably researched and beautifully written text, keyed to the intellectual, social, and industrial milieu of Furness’s time, and is full of nuances, clear-eyed observations, and telling analogies. He was born the son of a Harvard-trained Unitarian and abolitionist divine who was a lifelong friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other transcendentalists. A rebellious and self-centered youth—and as an adult—Furness eschewed Harvard in the 1850s to study with Richard Morris Hunt, the best-trained architect in the country. The Civil War interrupted his plans to further his education at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He found himself instead a member of the Union cavalry, rising to the rank of captain and fighting with such fool-hardy bravery during the Cold Harbor campaign that he was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. His architectural career began with his discharge near the end of the war.

Anyone who has been in combat, or has known or read of men who have, will understand that that experience marks—to greater or lesser degree—the rest of their lives. Hence the subtitle of Lewis’s book. At a glance, a reader might assume that he or she will be spoon-fed a mess of psychobabble porridge, but Lewis is too intelligent and too modest to fall into that delusive soup. He keeps dubious interpretations of obscure documents at arm’s length. He does, however, see Furness’s military bravado as an important key to understanding his personal demeanor, his professional methodology, and his architectural style. The man came out of the war a swearing, swaggering, bewhiskered figure of martial bearing, a bulldog personality ready to challenge the architectural status quo. 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.

Furness’s most important and characteristic buildings, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871-76), the Provident Life and Trust Building (1876-79), the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Depot (1886-87), the library of the University of Pennsylvania (1888-90), and the Broad Street Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1892-93), all in Philadelphia, display (or, rather, displayed, as three of the five are gone) variations on his aggressive style. Overscaled and willfully distorted details, clashing colors (early on; later his palate became notably subdued), a range of ornament from natural and conventionalized flora and fauna to wry comments on mechanical details, exposed industrial materials, muscular massing, top-heavy loading, dizzying compositional juxtapositions: these characteristics have been remarked since the (local) revival of interest in Furness more than a generation ago. Lewis interprets such aggressive imagery within the context of the emerging modern city as a weapon for “commercial competition.”

But Furness was more than just the designer of eye-popping commercial facades and bewildering interior furnishings. Lewis emphasizes the superbly rational planning, logistics, and structural innovation that went into each of these buildings. It was planning Furness had imbibed in Hunt’s atelier. And rather than perpetuate the myth of the manic wild man creating chaotic architecture out of the heat of personal turmoil, Lewis points out that for four decades Furness headed a large office that turned out a huge inventory of work, work that cut across the spectrum of urban building types and was finely honed to the needs and desires of his Philadelphia clientele.

His was an engineer’s aesthetic. Furness worked in a major industrial center for chemists, engineers, manufacturers, railroad men, and their representatives. His clients, men such as Fairman Rogers, A.J. Cassatt of the Pennsylvania Railroad, or Franklin B. Gowen of the Reading Railroad, were not discomforted by visible iron trusses or riveted iron girders, the industrial repertoire “he moved from the train shed to the lobby and the salon.” The exposed iron truss on the Cherry Street elevation of the Pennsylvania Academy or the noticeable beams within its galleries, the naked overhead trusses of his several bank buildings, the curving industrial beams above the reading room at the university library (certainly inspired by Viollet-le-Duc), the B & O terminal’s iron skeleton and staircases (where the rivets became decorative and the swirling balusters updated the blacksmith’s art): this was the vocabulary of the era of industrial might. Furness, according to Lewis, was perhaps the first architect “to capture the modern industrial world in all its strangeness and wonder.”

Part of that strangeness Furness expressed by translating industrial parts into architectural forms. The compressed “piston” columns of the Provident Building, the flared chimneys that recalled the flared stacks of the locally built Baldwin locomotives, the “universal joints” that form decorative couplings in the balusters of the main stairs of the Pennsylvania Academy, and the geared trusswork curves above the reading room at the university library: such details, according to Lewis, were “legible pieces of machinery,” and were tongue-in-cheek comments on the industrial anatomy of these buildings. (On the other hand, Furness also employed delicate, “heliotropic” plant forms in stone or terra cotta that celebrated a love of nature inherited from his father.)

Lewis’s volume includes a mass of new material about Furness’s life and refreshing characterizations of his work. This may not be obvious to the neophyte because Lewis’s endnotes, for the most part, concern only his additions to the discussion. Since this will be the definitive publication on Furness for the foreseeable future, the lack of a complete bibliography of articles, dissertations, and other books is disappointing. Then, too, the black-and-white photographs here are serviceable, but Cervin Robinson’s color work in the 1973 catalogue remains indispensable. Serious readers will want to have at hand the two earlier books on the architect.

But this is a quibble. The extraordinary originality and forceful character of Furness’s personality and architecture are brought to life by Lewis’s colorful writing. A stodgy bank façade suggests “what Vitruvius might have done had he been a Calvinist.” Architectural success “is not so much a hammock as a treadmill.” Furness’s work echoed mannerism and predicted postmodernism, “fitting in somewhere between Michelangelo and Michael Graves.” Robert McGoodwin’s proposal for a stiff, academic Gothic encasement of the University of Pennsylvania library (happily only a fragment materialized) is characterized as an “architectural chastity belt for Furness’s wanton building.” Such picturesque language makes reading Lewis a joy, and that is rare indeed in the field of architectural history. This is a model explication of a man and his work.