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PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building: America’s first modern building

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George E. Thomas’s new book “First Modern” says Frank Furness’s iconic work deserves a place in modern history

PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building is considered one of Frank Furness’s most iconic works.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

By all accounts, the modern movement in architecture in the U.S. is typically considered to have flourished in the 1930s, spearheaded by the Father of Modernism, Louis Sullivan. In later years, architects like Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Romaldo Giurgola would become the faces of the local midcentury modern movement in Philadelphia, what some would call the Philadelphia School of Architecture.

But George E. Thomas begs to differ. In his new book First Modern: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the cultural and architectural historian makes the bold argument that Frank Furness’s Historic Landmark Building at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the first modern building not just in Philadelphia, but in America.

“To claim that any one building represents the beginning of modern design is, of course, absurd,” Thomas writes. But, he continues, the movement had to start somewhere (Philadelphia), with someone (Frank Furness), and with something (the Historic Landmark Building).

First Modern is Thomas’s most recent attempt to understand Furness’s craftsmanship and process in designing one of the most iconic and cutting-edge buildings in Philadelphia, the Historic Landmark Building on North Broad.

The grand stairs are adorned with ornamental features inspired by industrial sources and the machine.
Courtesy of PAFA

Thomas, who is the co-author of Frank Furness: The Complete Works, has been studying the architect for decades. But at a recent tour of the PAFA building, he freely admits that he still has a lot to learn and discover about Furness’s life and work. Of the PAFA building, Thomas says, “I now know that what Furness accomplished in 1871 to 1876 was the beginning of both a career in which he kept pushing the limits.”

In the 127-page book, Thomas chronicles the making of the Historic Landmark Building from start to finish. In 1869, PAFA sold its existing Academy building for $140,000 and made a call to “let a new and fairer Academy arise in a desirable locality, under new promise, and with new means.”

Thomas says at the time, PAFA bucked the conservative nature of the city and wanted a new edifice that looked to the future: “In Philadelphia, [...] what’s a plus is solving things in a way that uses new materials to make a new set of systems and make things easier, better, and stronger.”

On the Cherry Street facade, the red and black brickwork is coupled with blasted sandstone, above the hand-patched brownstone foundation. The brownstone is the building’s only material that wasn’t produced by a machine, Thomas notes.
Courtesy of Shutterstock.com

The academy’s board, then made of a large number of engineers and industrialists at the height of Philadelphia’s industrial boom, found what they were looking for in Furness’ and partner George Hewitt’s forward-thinking design proposal.

True, the building is a perfect example of Furness’s whimsical tendencies, a combination of Moorish, Victorian, and Gothic architectural details. But that, combined with a number of elements of modern planning—think steel and iron construction, ventilation, and other modern heating and plumbing systems—made the art museum and school a groundbreaking feat of architecture and engineering.

Money also played a role in the design and construction of the building, Thomas notes. Construction was ongoing when the economic crash of 1873 happened, causing Furness to make some last-minute changes in materials.

Most of the ornaments and materials were created by machines, says Thomas. The stone columns were turned on steam-powered lathes, for example.
Courtesy of PAFA

“Furness begins to say, ‘How can I save a few bucks and what can the machine do for me?’” Thomas says. “Basically, with the exception of the brownstone base outside, every material in this building is made by machine. This is a building about mass production of materials right on down to the decorative ornament on the stairwell.”

At the grand opening of the building in 1876, Furness’s father Reverend Dr. William Henry Furness addressed a crowd of dignitaries who gathered on North Broad Street. Of the new museum and school building, he said, “It is no matter of taste. It is beyond all dispute.”

Of course, Furness’s father was a reverend, not an architecture critic. More unbiased receptions were downright baffled by the modern building. One critic was spot-on with his assessment of Furness’s work:

[T]he architect has shown himself a universal genius in architectural art and appears to have been so lost in his admiration of the many approved styles that he did not choose any one; though he affords a suspicion that he prefers the Venetian, he no sooner starts on that style than he appears to repent his choice and modifies until the style loses its right to that class designation.

Says Thomas, “The great thing about this building is 145 years later, it still works exactly the way it was intended.”
Photo by Tom Crane

But with time, the jewel-box building has become a respected work of architecture, and as Thomas argues, a leading example of the future of the modernist movement. “The larger story that I see so profoundly is that this is the building that Frank Furness, the architect, really established the directions that architecture was going to be able to go, to turn its back on history and create the present all the way to Frank Gehry and Kahn.”

In its long history history, the Historic Landmark Building (designated historic in 1971) has withstood the test of time, while undergoing at least two major renovations, including one under Thomas’s watch and most recently in 2015 with a $15 million overhaul.

“The great thing about this building is 145 years later, it still works exactly the way it was intended,” says Thomas. “It’s still doing the things that make it a great building.

North Broad Street

North Broad Street, , PA