The eminent Victorian Frank Furness (1839–1912) was the first great American architect after Thomas Jefferson and the first to design buildings that could, in any sense, be called original. Jefferson’s Greek Revival buildings were academically correct, but Furness rejected eclecticism’s almost obligatory requirement that historic form and ornament be copied and adapted literally. His best buildings are a synthesis of classical and Gothic architecture, with decorative elements adapted from many sources, and have little in common with the historically precise buildings of American Gothic Revivalists like Richard Upjohn, James Renwick, or Andrew Jackson Downing.
Furness’s work distorted forms and mixed historical sources in ways that invested his buildings with personal emotion and conflict.
Furness’s work was adapted to the challenges of the newly industrialized life of his time. He learned much from the writings and drawings of the French architect, scholar, and restorer Eugène Emmanuel Viollet- le-Duc (1814–79), best-known for his restorations of Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle in Paris. Viollet-le-Duc presented Gothic construction as a rational system fully applicable to the new technology; his concepts guided Furness’s own engineering advances and techniques. What most distinguished Furness’s work from that of his contemporaries, however, was the boldness with which he distorted forms and mixed historical sources in ways that invested his buildings with personal emotion and conflict.
Furness’s career lasted twenty-six years, but toward the end his commissions were fewer and not so important because Victorian Gothic architecture had gone out of style, replaced by the McKim, Mead & White version of classicism. Critical neglect lasted long after his death. When the architectural historians referred to Furness at all it was to note that in 1873 he had hired the sixteen-year-old Louis Sullivan, only to soon let him go because of the nationwide financial panic. In The Brown Decades (1935), a study of the arts of America in the last three decades of the nineteenth-century, Lewis Mumford gave Sullivan his due, but summed up Furness in a single sentence as “the designer of a bold, unabashed, ugly, and yet somehow healthily pregnant architecture.” Champions of Furness’s work began to appear by the 1960s. In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), the architect Robert Venturi included two Furness buildings, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the demolished National Bank of the Republic among over two-hundred works of architecture that embody the qualities that the book’s title affirms. Vincent Scully in American Architecture and Urbanism (1969) called Furness “a man of the 1870’s, the strongest and bravest.”
Michael J. Lewis in his brilliantly conceived and uncommonly well-written Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind1 is the first architectural historian to bring meticulous research and broad cultural and psychological interpretation to the life of Furness. By weaving the history of the country itself into the life of the man and the making of buildings, he has created an absorbing portrait of the American Victorian world. Throughout his book, he tells how one after another of Furness’s buildings came to be. He unsparingly reveals Furness’s relentless, and sometimes ruthless, political and social maneuvering to get work and his dumping of two successive partners when they impeded his progress. He was as tough as his clients—the banking executives, railroad moguls, and industrialists who more often than not gave him his way.
Lewis suggests that Furness’s mind was not only tough but also violent, and offers more than the troubled genius’s brooding, conflicted, and domineering architecture as evidence. He reveals the teenage Frank as
surly and truculent … [traits that hinted] at more persistent and pernicious discontents. Whether these signs are labeled as raving and melancholy, in the words of his generation, or mania and depression in the words of ours, virtually all intimate accounts of Frank draw attention to the ferocity of his temper and to his self-destructive nature.
From his youth to the age of forty, Furness suffered periodic bouts of mental illness involving loss of appetite, nervousness, and excessive agitation. By age fifty these problems were chronic. Ill or comparatively well, he also possessed an ungovernable temper that expressed an immense ego.
Furness had inherited this fragility of temperament from his father, but William Henry Furness (1802–1896) also bestowed upon his son a legacy of great cultural and intellectual distinction. He had been born into an old and prominent New England Puritan family. He knew Ralph Waldo Emerson from childhood, and the two were at Harvard at the same time. After becoming a doctor of divinity, he took over the Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia. A connoisseur of architecture, it was he who chose William Strickland to build for his expanding congregation the Greek Revival First Unitarian Church, completed in 1828 but demolished in 1885. Strickland, one of the most distinguished architects of his era, had built Philadelphia’s Second Bank of the United States, a still extant Greek Revival masterpiece completed in 1824.
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The senior Furness also practiced many arts. He drew, wrote literary criticism, translated German verse, composed the occasional hymn, and wrote a series of books introducing to American Protestant theology the concept of Jesus as an historical figure rather than a divine one. Furness attracted Philadelphia’s scientific and literary intellectuals to his home and church, while Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Lucretia Mott would come down from Boston to urge him to participate actively in the abolitionist movement.
Young Furness was supposed to follow his father and brother Horace to Harvard, but as the time approached he refused to go. Emerson, knowing of Frank’s unhappiness, tried to interest him in nature and art by giving him a stereoscope through which to look at three-dimensional images of landscape and architecture. “With this kindly gesture,” Lewis writes, “Emerson opened for Furness the same window onto the universe that he celebrated in his famous essay ‘On Nature,’ the most exquisite statement of New England transcendentalism, the belief that the entire natural world is the physical manifestation of the Godhead.” Lewis points out that Furness really didn’t need Emerson to help him discover architecture. It was going on all around him in Philadelphia, and, given his father’s interest, in the air at home.
Furness chose to study architecture and thereby avoided Harvard. In the United States at that time there were no architectural schools, and training in the profession was by means of apprenticeships, private drawing schools, reading, and travel. The Reverend Furness placed his then sixteen-year-old son as a pupil in the architectural office of the Philadelphia architect John Fraser (1825–1906). Because there were no blueprint machines, his work as a junior draftsman must have consisted mainly of reproducing drawings by tracing, copying letters, and writing specifications. Later he would have progressed to working drawings, but actual design was the prerogative of the office principals—plainly a dull place for young Furness.
For the Furness family, abolition was a holy calling and the Civil War a holy war.
Early on, through his brother Willy, a painter, he had the good fortune to meet Richard Morris Hunt (1827–95), just back from ten years in Paris and the first American architect ever to have studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. “Hunt,” Lewis explains, “offered a tantalizing gift of what architecture could be, if handled as an act of imagination, and practiced with one’s whole spirit and being.” Of Hunt, Furness wrote:
Never shall I forget the enthusiastic alacrity with which, in describing some object—I think [it] was a weather cock, on a European cathedral—he seized a piece of paper, and with a pencil from his pocket, made one of those wonderful “cobweb” sketches as he called them—not one useless stroke, every line had its meanings and due emphasis, and dashed off with such unerring foreknowledge! I had never imagined that there could be such drawing.
In 1858 the Reverend Furness asked Hunt to take Frank as a pupil in his New York atelier where he had begun to teach architecture using the methods of the Beaux-Arts system. Hunt also practiced architecture in an office separate from the school. In 1860 Furness was invited by Hunt to manage the office, and he formed his plans. He would work for Hunt to learn from a true master, sail to Paris to study, and then return to America and establish his practice. But there was to be no formal education in Paris for Furness; he fought in the Civil War instead.
For the Furness family, abolition was a holy calling and the Civil War a holy war. Of the Reverend Furness’s three sons, only Frank went to battle to uphold his father’s cause, because Horace was deaf and Willy had a wife and child. With war coming and building at a standstill, Hunt had closed his office, married, and decamped to France for a long honeymoon just as the first shots fell upon Fort Sumter. Furness returned to Philadelphia and joined an elite volunteer cavalry regiment known as Rush’s Lancers founded by the West Pointer and Mexican War veteran Richard Henry Rush. He equipped himself with two horses, a saber, and a pistol and was handed a lance to carry instead of a rifle and bayonet, the latter being in short supply. Furness was inspired by the folly of the lance to make a cartoon with the following caption: “A cavalryman with a saber rode into a charge and pierced one foe and carried him off in triumph on his sword, but a lancer rode in by his side, and transfixed half a dozen foes, and bore them off on his lance, gaily.” Mounted on handsome horses with lances raised, the volunteers were nothing if not picturesque and became immortal through a famous sketch by Winslow Homer.
Rush’s Lancers on their arrival at Hampton Roads in 1862 passed the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack about to duel for the second time. Lewis boldly suggests that for Furness they were to become a source of architectural form.
If there were any visual memory from the entire war whose essence is preserved in Furness’s buildings, it was this one: turreted iron-plated machines, living mechanical instruments whose form was shaped by the neutral principles of statics and physics. Furness’s lumbering banks might derive their details from Gothic aedicules, but in their sense of implied motion, of living mass and bulk, they had more in common with the Monitor than perhaps any architectural monument in history.
Although his horse was shot from under him in one of the battles of the Wilderness Campaign, he rose from the ground, uninjured. He similarly lost two more horses, but survived the war without a wound. Furness even once risked his life to save a Confederate soldier by entering no man’s land to apply a tourniquet to the man’s bleeding leg. On his way back he heard the Confederate call out, “You may be a Yankee, but, by Gad, you are a gentleman.” Late in his life Furness placed a note in Southern newspapers to find the man if he still lived. The search was successful, and the two met again in Philadelphia in 1905. Lewis’s superbly illustrated book includes a photograph of the aged pair, shaking hands. In 1899 Furness was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery under fire in 1864 at Trevilian Station.
At the end of the war, the twenty-five-year old Furness returned to Philadelphia to marry and begin his practice. Lewis does not believe that his experience of battle expressed itself in his work: “Already he had a sense of physical heft and convulsive collision at a time when he had not yet heard a shot fired in anger or seen a drop of blood (although his childhood was laden with a looming sense of anti-abolitionist violence). The Civil War did not generate this sensibility, though it certainly acted to intensify it.” Lewis perceives Furness’s battlefield experience as a different kind of architectural apprenticeship.
He had organized encampments, thrown together bulwarks and entrenchments, made log redoubts. In addition he had been exposed to planning logistics, troop movements, a kind of highly abstract architectural experience. But the principal architectural lesson of the war had more to do with the style of the man than the style of his buildings. Now he could “wage architecture,” running at top speed, damning all dangers and whatever criticism was fired at him. His sprint under fire at Trevilian Station was the primal event of his life; from it he learned that the bold and unexpected was likely to meet with success, and that, in some way, he was charmed and thereby immune to danger. In short, he brought to his profession the heightened awareness and bold initiative of the combat veteran.
The practical and manly engineering and planning skills that Furness mastered, the confidence gained, and the good fortune of his survival intact from a brutal war, made it possible for him to bring forth such masterpieces as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Provident Life and Trust Building, and the University of Pennsylvania Library. But as Lewis writes, “Furness’s narcissism was also a fundamental ingredient of his architecture … each building acting as a kind of safety valve, draining out the excess agitation and turbulence, whatever its cause, that continued to bubble up from within Furness’s restless soul.” His buildings are perceived by Lewis as more than original expressions of style. For him, they are intellectual creations and represent the first great attempt by an architect to reconcile the world of nature and the world of the machine. In his epilogue, Lewis concludes: “Here is the theme of his life: while the builders of his utilitarian, materialist age tried to subject nature to mechanistic principles, Furness turned the process around and, like Walt Whitman, looked for the poetry in the vital forces of the modern age, and sought the flower in the machine.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 2, on page 76
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