Penn Restores a Masterpiece by One of America's
Most Idiosyncratic Architects

By Lawrence Biemiller

Philadelphia -- For years people looked at Frank Furness's buildings and found themselves groping for words. Eventually most seemed to settle on eclectic -- but only because bizarre, perverse, and grotesque were too impolite. No American architect has ever been more idiosyncratic during his career, or more thoroughly reviled after it. Other styles went out of fashion; Furness's went into disgrace and then, during a succession of redevelopment projects here, nearly out of existence.

Critics and admirers alike agree that his architecture is extreme. His stonework is overscaled and his ornament histrionic. He created colorful, textured surfaces and then lavished unprecedented window treatments on them. And it's no exaggeration to say that much of his architectural vocabulary -- squashed columns and flattened arches were favorites -- looks as if Wile E. Coyote had ordered building parts from the Acme Gothic Elements Co. and then pushed them off a cliff; they missed the Road Runner and fell into place, still cartoon-like but now newly misshapen, in downtown Philadelphia.

What is most amazing about Furness is that his clients were this city's most respectable and important businesses and institutions. He talked bankers, deacons, and zookeepers alike into facades swollen with oddball towers and pierced by strange windows. He gave railroad barons signal towers with Disneyesque details and stations whose dormers looked like locomotive headlights. And when the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago gave the public a new taste for classical architecture, his reputation began a decline that lasted for most of this century.

Only in recent years have architects rebelling against modernism begun rehabilitating Furness. The job may now be nearly complete: The April edition of the magazine Architecture cites him twice as having inspired details of just-completed buildings. A new book, Frank Furness: The Complete Works, is due out soon from Princeton Architectural Press. And the University of Pennsylvania has restored one of his two greatest surviving structures, an 1891 library called the Furness Building.

Penn officials describe the structure, which now serves as a fine-arts library, as the model academic library of its time. In planning it, Furness consulted not only with one of his brothers, Horace Furness, a noted Shakespeare scholar who was chairman of the university's building committee, but also with Melvin Dewey, who created the Dewey Decimal System, and with Justin Winsor, the librarian at Harvard University.

In 1877, Harvard became the first American institution to separate book stacks from other library areas, allowing stack space to be used more economically. Frank Furness took advantage of the development to plan a library whose shelf space could be expanded as necessary by adding additional segments to a fireproof wing that housed only stacks. The wing had skylights and specially designed glass floors to minimize the amount of gas lighting necessary -- fumes from gas lamps harmed books. Furness saw to it that the rest of the library would be almost as bright: Everywhere he punched huge windows through both exterior and interior walls.

Unlike Furness's other surviving masterpiece, the 1871 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the library represents his mature style. Perhaps influenced by H. H. Richardson, the leading American architect of the period, Furness had begun letting the functions of a building's parts determine its shape. Shape, in turn, became more important as an architectural statement than ornament, and his ornamentation became less cartoon-like. For Furness, this was a substantial change.

One enters the library through a lobby beside the stair tower. Doors directly ahead lead to the four-story main reading room, with the circulation desk to the right and the stacks behind it. To the left, through a pair of impressive arches, is another reading room, this one two stories high, which ends in a semicircle of alcoves for special collections. Above this room is a soaring space, also semicircular on one end, that served originally as an auditorium; the university's architecture students now use it for building their models. Above the circulation desk and entrance hall are smaller rooms for classes and seminars.

The building's exterior elevations represent its interior functions simply and honestly. A substantial porch defines the entrance, and the stair tower -- marked unmistakably by two ascending windows -- rises beside it. Behind the tower, a single long mass that culminates in an apse holds the two reading rooms and the auditorium. The skylighted special-collection alcoves extend the base of the apse in an unusual but not unexplainable fashion. At the opposite end of the building are the stacks, now hidden by a series of later, unsympathetic additions.

"Each piece has its own expression," says George E. Thomas, one of the authors of the new book on Furness and a principal in the Clio Group, a consulting firm that worked on the restoration project. The architects for the $16.5-million project were Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates -- which is fitting enough, because Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown both studied architecture in the building.

Mr. Venturi, whose writings helped lead the rebellion against modernism, provides the introduction to Frank Furness: The Complete Works. He says, in part: "My feeling for Furness is not hate-love; it is absolute unrestrained adoration and respect for his work; it elates me by its quality, spirit, diversity, wit, [and] tragic dimension."

Mr. Venturi says Furness makes "conventional elements signally original and he composes them in crazy ways; his relative sizes and scales of elements and his juxtapositions are dissonant and ambiguous, complex and contradictory." He adds: "Above all, these forms are tense with a feeling of life and reality."

Indeed, the main reading room, stripped of an intermediate level that was added in the 1920's, is one of the most energetic interior spaces in all of American architecture. The side walls are four-part compositions that begin with terra- cotta arches composed of alternating square-edged and round- edged blocks. Above, springing from muscular knees and separated by ornaments that look like snails emerging from their shells, are smaller arches that in turn support a broad band of terra-cotta foliation.

Above that are square leaded-glass windows with such inscriptions as "MEN SHOULD BE WHAT THEY SEEM" and "SMALL THINGS MAKE BASE MEN PROUD." Still higher, between toothed brackets that support the ceiling, are yet more windows. The reading room's fireplace is a gem in its own right: It has a better roofline than most buildings, as well as one of the compressed fireboxes that were a Furness trademark.

In places, the building's exterior reflects its interior hierarchy. The apse, for instance, rises off the forbidding base that contains the special-collection alcoves; above are tiers of windows, framed by arches and bands, that match the tiers inside. A semicircle of bold dormers completes the composition.

But the building's highlight is the massive stair tower with its enormous and almost face-like central window -- two stories of glass and a third of red stone that forms an arch set in a huge square. Above is a double row of ornamented crenelations. Inside, the tower has plain brick walls that contrast sharply with the lacy ironwork of the staircase, which is itself a marvel. It seems solid enough as it begins, but as it rises asymmetrically from landing to landing it narrows, finally becoming so slight that it is awed by the emptiness around it. To climb it is an experience that testifies to Furness's imagination and skill.

Even so, the building was loathed for years. The stacks tended to overheat, leading critics to call the library a "fortified greenhouse." Not until the early 1980's did university officials finally reject calls to tear it down. Removing the 1920's addition to the reading room has since restored one of Philadelphia's great public spaces, but the building still suffers from the uninspired additions made in the 1930's and from what seems to have been a grade change in the quadrangle the building faces. The library now sits somewhat awkwardly at the bottom of a slope that turn-of-the-century photographs don't show.

On the other hand, Furness's Broad Street and Chestnut Street Stations have been demolished and his astonishing banks are almost all gone (Drexel University uses the unrestored remains of one as a personnel office). The University of Pennsylvania's decision to restore the Furness Building rather than destroy it benefits not only the students who now crowd its tables but also everyone else who may have the good fortune to visit.

Copyright © 1991 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published May 8, 1991.