frank furness’ birthday bash(up)

SUN 064

Fisher Fine Arts Library (1888-90)

. . . an architect who seemed to have taken as the motto of his maturer years, “oderint, modo metuant,” which, being translated, is “Let them abuse it, so long as it makes them ‘sit up.’ ” There can be no question that the contemplation of these later works is incompatible with the maintenance of a recumbent attitude. . . (Architectural Record, 1910)

Considering both the designer and his designs, Frank Furness (1839–1912) was as difficult in life as he has become celebrated in death.  Born in Philadelphia, Furness was a strong-willed architect, described by professional peers and clients alike as having a hot temper.  He designed some of the more compelling and unusual buildings of the last decades of the nineteenth century, mostly in the Middle Atlantic states, especially southeast Pennsylvania.

1 provident

Provident (1888)

As some biographers would have it, no earlier American architect had a single legitimate creative thought before Furness’ unparalleled genius rose above the wholly-derivative boredomscape of American architecture to shine with dazzling, perhaps even blinding, magnificence.  Even if that is stretching the point, Furness’ ability to convince bankers (and other clients one might expected to be somewhat conservative) to take a dare on unusual compositions is a significant achievement for any period. While much of Furness’ work can be categorized with the kind of eclecticism that raged through American cities after the Civil War, his most impressive buildings stick out like the proverbial sore thumb–an apt metaphor since they have a sense of throbbing aggression about them.  They brood and grimace through weighty proportions and sneer with bristly ornament. Even a refined building like the Fisher Fine Arts Library is built up of a fiery combination of brick and terra cotta that blazes in the sunlight. (For good recent color photos and a description of the $16M restoration by Venturi, Scott Brown and Assoc. in 1991, click here.)

1 prov demo

Provident (during demolition)

Yet it is noteworthy that so many of Furness’ captivating and confounding creations met with the sorry end of wrecking balls swung by later generations who found his work confusing, ungainly, in questionable taste or perhaps just plain ol’ ugly.  Hundreds of Furness buildings, like the Provident Bank shown here, exist only in black and white photographs today.  His buildings that remain standing are now admired for their creative conglomerations of historical features; Furness’ handling of architectural elements was so distinct that standard architectural terminology falls short of describing or even naming all the elements present in these wild confections. A century before the term mashup was coined, Furness was blending unlikely combinations of materials and historical precedents and somehow achieving a consonance between elements that in the hands of less-skilled architects lead to disastrous mélange productions that are so dissonant they can make your teeth hurt.  But Furness was able to merge Gothic and Second Empire features, as well as connect highly-polished granite and low-class iron, in a way that honors each element on its own while enhancing its individual qualities by virtue of the comparison with something foreign or divergent; somehow those original pieces are made more fun and enjoyable for their unexpected pairings.  Is Furness the nineteenth century’s architectural precursor to 2manydjs?  Do his buildings Smell Like Bootylicious?  Click here and you be the judge.

November 12 is the anniversary of Furness’ birth; the following menu is offered in honor of the conflicting conundrum, the bizarre beauty, the weirdness and wonder of Frank Furness.


Oderint, modo metuant

Crudités: primarily green and red peppers, pass with vinaigrette (more vinaigre than grette)

Main Course Offerings: Jerk Goat, Phaal Curry, Szechuan Ma La Spicy Chicken Pot

Cheese Tray: Limburger and Stinking Bishop paired with Mango Chutney and Figs

Dessert Tray: Peaches in Habenero Chile Glaze, Sage Custard, Goat Cheese Mousse, Chocolate Fondue with French Fries and Bacon

Digestif: Whiskey, filtered with Scotch Bonnets

Provident Life & Trust Company Bank, 407-409 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA: photographs from the Historic American Buildings Survey (for HABS site click here)

Interested in reading more about Furness?  Allow me to suggest Frank Furness, Architecture and the Violent Mind by Michael J. Lewis (for publisher information click here)

4 thoughts on “frank furness’ birthday bash(up)

  1. Is not a matter of taste, is a meter of quality, class, style and finesse. Simplicity, in architecture, most of the time is synonymous of been incapable of doing nothing more interesting. Usually for the absence of imagination and been overcome with laziness…

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