PHILADELPHIA, PA.- The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
presents Building a Masterpiece: Frank Furness' Factory for Art, on view September 29 - December 30, an exhibition of 32 architectural drawings documenting the evolution of the revolutionary Furness-designed Historic Landmark Building.
As part of a city-wide celebration of Frank Furness (1839-1912) on the 100th anniversary of his death, and in conjunction with noted scholar and architecture historian George Thomas, the exhibition celebrates the legacy of this prolific and talented American architect who created more than 600 buildings during his career, many of them located in Philadelphia.
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 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."
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 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.
Details of the intricate stonework, masonry, and decorative elements of the building, meanwhile, were suggested and described by Furness' drawings, and then created by master craftsmen who materialized the architect's vision with impeccable artistry.
After service in the cavalry in the Civil War, for which he won the Medal of Honor, Furness designed nearly 1,000 projects for the Philadelphia engineers and industrialists who together transformed America. For this clientele Furness created a new architecture that incorporated the materials and expressed the energy of the Iron Age. Just as Barcelona's Antonio Gaudi symbolized his city in the 20th century, Furness embodied the values of Philadelphia in the industrial age.
In 1873, the young architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) entered the Furness and Hewitt office. Many years later he recalled Furness' partner, George Hewitt, with his nose in books while Furness "made buildings out of his head." In making designs that expressed purpose instead of looting historical forms, Furness began the process that led to modern architecture.
For Sullivan, Furness' method was right and became the basis for his own architecture in Chicago. Sullivan passed Furness' ideas on to Frank Lloyd Wright who kept them alive in the 20th century. Other Furness students continued the architectural evolution in Philadelphia including William L. Price and George Howe who form a link to the architectural values of the Philadelphia School of Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi.