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Frank Furness’ Legacy of Gilded Age Main Line Architecture

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Frank Furness would probably hate your house.

Yeah, that tasteful center-hall Colonial with its plain-box style, Episcopal-red front door and fake shutters, plunked down in a row with other center-hall Colonials along one of many too-similar streets. Its look is practically synonymous with Main Line style—or, as Furness might insist, the lack of it.

Furness was Philadelphia’s most important and prolific architect of the Gilded Age, roughly those years of enormous economic growth between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century. He designed more than 600 buildings, mostly in and around Philadelphia His best structures didn’t follow popular national trends, which ultimately proved to be the undoing of many—and why his fans lament Furness as our “most demolished” architect. Asymmetrical, eclectic and bold, they certainly demanded attention.

There’s the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871), hailed by preservationist John Andrew Gallery as “one of the most magnificent Victorian buildings in the country.” University of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Fine Arts Library (1888) has been described as part fortress, part cathedral. The palatial Bryn Mawr Hotel (1890) is now home to the Baldwin School. And Broad Street Station (1892) houses the Pennsylvania Railroad, once the largest company in the world. Form generally followed function in Furness’ work, though he never gave short shrift to either. 

 

“Furness shifted from backward-looking historical sources to a design strategy that started from logistics and dazzled the eye with forms that gave expression to purpose,” wrote architectural historian George E. Thomas. 

In the western suburbs and on the Main Line, Furness did largely residential work. Here, his clients were mostly the same railroad executives and industrialists who hired him for commercial and institutional projects. 

In Haverford, there was Cheswold—built in 1872 for A.J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania  Railroad—and Dolobran, finished nine years later for Clement Griscom, president of the American Steamship Co. Bala Cynwyd had Pencoyd, constructed in 1883 for George Roberts, president of Pencoyd Iron Works. And in Bryn Mawr, Castlefinn was built about 1875 for James Rawle, president of J.G. Brill Company, a manufacturer of railroad cars.

Cassatt, Griscom and Rawle all came to Philadelphia from elsewhere and, thus, weren’t connected to old-money clans. Roberts was an exception to the rule, as established local families typically didn’t patronize Furness. He was the architect for up-and-comers.

Born in Philadelphia in 1839, Furness studied architecture here and in New York during the 1850s, before enlisting to fight in the Civil War with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He fought at Gettysburg and won the Medal of Honor for carrying a box of ammunition across a fire-swept field at the 1864 Battle of Trevilian Station in Virginia. After the war, Furness came back to Philadelphia and began creating his striking structures. Some historians have
wondered if Furness had PTSD, or something like it. “For four critical years, Furness worked at war, yearning to return to architecture, only to find that he could not remove the warfare from his designs,” observed Furness biographer Michael L. Lewis.

 

Furness’ work referenced both nature and the machinery that, in an increasingly industrialized world, was becoming commonplace to 19th-century Americans. Lewis cited the “indecent” ripeness of Furness’ building ornamentation. His open display of beams and rivets—as in the modular iron-and-glass book stacks at the Penn library—was shocking to Victorians unaccustomed to looking under a building’s skirts. And then there was the “compulsive priapism” of Furness’ chimneys—which, said Lewis, “served to mark him as a man who was not quite fit for the salon.”

Furness was a close physical approximation of his own buildings. With his bright red hair and matching, fan-like beard that hung to his chest, he dressed in plaid suits and was prone to tantrums. When Louis Sullivan—later dubbed “the father of skyscrapers”—applied for a job in his office, Furness called him an “idiot” once he learned that he’d studied at MIT. Furness scoffed at architectural schools. But he hired Sullivan anyway.

Frank Furness was able to dominate Philadelphia for two reasons. First, he had excellent local connections. In the Civil War, important people automatically became officers. (That so many of them were militarily incompetent explains why the Union fared so poorly early in the struggle.) What it meant for Furness, however, is that he came out of the Army well-known to his future patrons. “That is how an architect gets work—by being in the right clubs, knowing the right people,” says historian James B. Garrison, author of several books on local architecture. “He had incredible [sway in] the business community and really developed a lock on this market.”

Simultaneously, Furness managed to be the designer for the Pennsylvania, Reading and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. “No other architect was able to pull that off,” says Garrison.

And this was Philadelphia, which has always been resistant to outside trends. So, as Furness was lining Chestnut Street with his creations, other American architects were copying Europe’s Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne styles, both revivals of earlier historical themes. During this period, one critic wondered whether Philadelphia’s continuing support of Furness might be evidence of a “psychological problem” at work in the city.

 

The Furness era ended with the Gilded Age. By the end of the 19th century, the explosive post-war growth of manufacturing, railroads, mining and shipbuilding was over. Increasingly, such companies passed from the visionaries who had created them—Cassatt, Griscom, Roberts, Rawle
—to managers whose job was to tend to what others had made.

Such men don’t take chances. They look to others for ideas and confirmation. They strive to fit in and, when choosing an architectural style, an important element of fitting in is to show good taste. Unlike Furness’ patrons, they don’t try to stand out. For managers, Colonial Revival—the center-hall Colonial—was just the ticket.

Ironically, the Colonial Revival movement got its biggest boost right here in our area. At the 1876 Centennial, visitors were enthralled by exhibitions that focused on the houses of the Founding Fathers. The New Jersey pavilion was a reconstruction of the Ford Mansion at Morristown, where George Washington had spent the winter of 1779-80. Another reconstruction had a working colonial kitchen, with a spinning wheel.

In an era experiencing waves of immigration, the perceived message was that to be an American—to fit in—one lived in center-hall Colonial. It was safe. It would retain its resale value.

Rich Americans responded on an even grander scale. Henry Ford created Greenfield Village. The Du Ponts turned Winterthur into a collection of Americana. And, starting in 1926, John D. Rockefeller began the restoration of what is now Colonial Williamsburg. “The impact of the Centennial was felt elsewhere first, but eventually the focus here also turned to Colonial Revival,” says Garrison. 

 

The trend accelerated as Philadelphia’s national importance receded. By then, many folks around here were embarrassed by Furness’ work—too flashy, too disrespectful of the rules, just too much. “His Main Line houses were really his best,” says Garrison, who, in 1989, worked as the restoration architect on Dolobran. “They were his most eclectic, most flamboyant projects. But, as with fashion, they had a shelf life of one generation. Even the children who grew up in these houses didn’t want them.”

After years of neglect, the 17,000-square-foot Dolobran was lucky enough to have been found in the 1980s by an affluent buyer with a large family. It was a designer showcase house in 1990. But when it went on the market in 2010 for $5.9 million, it found no buyers. In October 2012, it was sold at auction for a rumored $750,000. According to county records, when the sale closed in December 2012, the sale price was $1.

Noting that the house sits on two acres in a desirable area, Garrison considers Dolobran to be in danger. “The bottom line is that it was sold at auction and didn’t make its price,” he says. “It’s now a very inviting teardown.”

Bryn Mawr-based real estate agent Rebecca Diamond says such houses are just too weird for modern families—even those who can afford them. If Dolobran is to be preserved, she guesses, it might be as apartments or condos. “It had a lot of dark wood, as many of these old houses do,” says Diamond. “And today’s buyers do not want dark. They want light and bright—and open floor plans.” 

 

Other Furness properties survive as institutions. The Bryn Mawr Hotel (1890) has been occupied by the Baldwin School since 1896. Bryn Mawr Hospital (1893) has added on to its original Gerhard Building many times. Harford, in Radnor, is now the Creutzburg Center, the home of Main Line School Night. In Devon, however, the Devereux Foundation knocked down the much-abused remains of 1880’s Earlham two years ago.

In Media, Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades is in an ideal situation to preserve the 11 Furness buildings on its campus. According to K.C. Cassell, senior vice president of institutional advancement, the school trains students for the building trades and uses the structures as hands-on classrooms. “We’re teaching basic, good skills, not looking to be ultramodern,” says Cassell. “The craft of repair and architectural integrity comes in the details.”

Cheswold was razed in 1936, and Pencoyd in 1939. Castlefinn seems to have disappeared by 1960. Today, interestingly enough, the sites are populated by many tasteful center-hall Colonials.

To see more photos, click here.

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