Architecture Planning and Preservation Frank Furness
George E. Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0006


Frank Furness (12 November 1839–27 June 1912) took an original course that accelerated the transformation of American architecture from an art rooted in the past to one that responded to the rapidly changing materials, technologies, and circumstances of the Industrial Age. After study in New York in the atelier of Richard Morris Hunt, Furness served as an officer in the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, winning the Medal of Honor in the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War at Trevilian Station, Virginia, in 1864. Furness entered practice when a new generation, arising from the city’s industrial culture, had taken control of Philadelphia’s economy and institutions. Its leaders, many from the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, proposed to hold an international exhibition in Philadelphia, ostensibly to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, but with the larger goal of representing to the nation and the world the extraordinary innovations in modern design initiated in Philadelphia. When the Centennial Exhibition opened in May 1876, Furness had already completed half a dozen banks in the downtown area, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and two religious buildings in the institutional center as well as numerous houses scattered across the elite residential district, a bank, and various pavilions at the fair. Those buildings introduced him to Centennial Exhibition visitors from both the United States and abroad. During more than forty years of practice, Furness and his various offices (Fraser, Furness & Hewitt; Furness & Hewitt, Frank Furness; Furness & Evans; Furness, Evans & Co.) produced designs for nearly 800 projects, the vast majority of which were built. Some 200 were commissioned by the nation’s largest railroads, including the Philadelphia and Reading, the Baltimore and Ohio, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the end of the century, Furness found himself largely excluded from the professional narrative as architects working from historical models found his ahistorical work inscrutable. Furness introduced the literature of family friends, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to the young architects working in his office, including Louis Sullivan (b. 1856–d. 1924), William L. Price (b. 1861–d. 1916), and George Howe (b. 1886–d. 1955). George Howe, who, like Sullivan and Price, shared the experience of the Furness office, laid out an American genealogy for modern architecture in his essay “What Is This Modern Architecture Trying to Express?” (1930) that included “Wright, Sullivan, and Price.” These architects and their students, from Irving Gill to Louis Kahn, carried on the discipline found in Furness’s architecture into our own time.

General Overviews

Furness was rediscovered in the 1950s as an architect whose work constituted a counter to the minimalist corporate modernism that was transforming American cities. A series of articles led to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s major exhibit incorporating archival and family materials together with the contemporary photographs of Cervin Robinson. O’Gorman 1973, a catalogue for the exhibit, placed Furness in the context of Victorian design theory and provided the first overview of Furness’s career. Orlowski 1986 provides a compelling overview of Emerson, Frank’s father, and the impact of the abolition movement, as well as the individuals who became models for Furness’s persona. Thomas, et al. 1996 extends the narrative to Furness’s cultural setting, criticism, and design strategies. Lewis 2001 is a richly detailed biography.

  • Lewis, Michael J. Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

    Lewis provides a detailed portrait working from family records and letters that brings out the personality of Furness.

  • O’Gorman, James F. The Architecture of Frank Furness. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973.

    The first comprehensive overview of Furness’s career with a catalogue of forty separate commissions spanning his career and a documented checklist detailing some 500 projects.

  • Orlowski, Mark B. “Frank Furness: Architecture and the Heroic Ideal.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1986.

    A substantial overview of the cultural and theoretical setting for Furness’s career that sorts out the men and experiences that shaped the Furness persona while providing a theoretical framework for his designs, rooted in European theory and American philosophy.

  • Thomas, George E., Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Michael J. Lewis. Frank Furness: The Complete Works. Rev. ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.

    Essays by Thomas and colleagues situate Furness in his Victorian cultural and aesthetic milieu. The volume is indispensable for the photographic coverage with essays and related texts by Sullivan, Furness, and Kelsey together with a bibliography covering the period from the 1973 catalogue to 1991.

  • Thomas, George E., Patricia Ricci, J. Bruce Thomas, et al. Buildings of the United States: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.

    Furness’s career is placed in the cultural context of Quaker and industrial Pennsylvania and the rising industrial culture; includes extensive bibliography.

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