Founded in 1805 by Charles Willson Peale, the preeminent painter of George Washington, and a band of fellow artists, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the oldest institute for the study of the arts in the new republic. Following a fire at its original home on Chestnut Street and subsequently out growing the reconstructed space, it moved to its present home on the corner of Broad and Cherry Streets in 1876.

This new home was designed by Frank Heyling Furness and his partner George Hewitt in time for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. One hundred years later, just in time for the bicentennial, the building was masterfully restored.

Furness’ architecture is brutal, heavy, and highly decorative in a style that is much his own. Forcefully juxtaposing elements from various influences, his designs moved outside the typical Romanesque Revival more typical of contemporaries like Henry H. Richardson. His unique approach was hugely influential on the great American architects Louis Sullivan and Franky Wright. Though his work drifted out of a favor, he found a new champion in the historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who praised Furness’ ugly approach to beauty.

Unfortunately many of his even more impressive buildings have been since demolished. Access to the equally impressive Fisher Fine Arts Library is limited to those with a student ID. Nonetheless, the PAFA building stands as a prime example of his master craft. The stout and heavy columns capped with gothic arches are a perfect demonstration of his integration of Neo-Romanesque and Neo-Gothic principles. They pay homage to Violet Le-Duc and John Ruskin, though Furness never formally studied at a university or traveled outside the US.

The combination of terracotta and stone ornament with decorative brick patterns is visually striking, and the overall massing and composition gives a simultaneous feel of heaviness and lightness that suits this museum and school well. The cast iron lamps incorporate a near machine-like aesthetic. Many of his other non-surviving works were for train terminals and banks. They reflected the ideals of the post Civil War industrial-era, which Furness learned through his experiences with the war and railroads.

In 1969 he was memorialized by the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA, which he founded, as its “great architect of the past.” In 1975 this site was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
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