George E. Thomas’s Book First Modern Extols PAFA’s Architectural Importance: A Review
(By) Marita Krivda Poxon
George E. Thomas has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for over thirty years in the Historic Preservation Program. Since 2002 he commutes from Philadelphia to Harvard University where he also lectures in architecture. His title at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is Co-Director of Critical Conservation Program. He refuses to move to Cambridge since he has not been a fan of the derivative colonial housing stock nearby Harvard’s campus. Since he was a young historian he has loved Philadelphia and has been the number one champion of Frank Furness. He even lives in a Frank Furness carriage house in Chestnut Hill.
The buildings of Frank Furness are his passion ever since he rolled up his sleeves to spearhead the amazing restoration of PAFA during the Bicentennial. He advised architects on every inch of the building’s restoration to make whole again the glories of its basic bones. Years of work were spent in the study of surviving original architectural drawings and historic photographs of the building.
(F. Gutekunst’s photo of PAFA in 1876)
Thomas is also a prolific, fine writer whose books include: William L. Price: From Arts and Crafts to Modern Design (2000) and Building America’s First University: An Architectural and Historical Guides to the University of Pennsylvania (2000) and many others. In 1990 Thomas along with Bryn Mawr College’s Jeffrey A. Cohen wrote Frank Furness: The Complete Works. This book documents over 640 buildings that Furness designed that continue to inspire what today is called the Philadelphia School of Architecture.
George E. Thomas’s new book is: First Modern: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA Distributed by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). No other architectural historian could have written the book just published with such obvious love of and appreciation for Frank Furness as Thomas. In the book’s Foreword, David Brigham, PAFA’s President and CEO praises the author since his book will enable its readers “to understand the innovative nature of the building and appreciate its value today at the heart of PAFA’s mission.” Also its publication serves as a lynchpin in the current Capital Campaign for the 21st Century preservation of the Furness masterpiece.
What makes the PAFA building the first modern is the way Furness connected his design to the machine culture that took over Philadelphia during its 19th Century industrial expansion. Mechanics, industrialists and inventors thrived in Philadelphia. It was the leader in global innovation with businesses like the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baldwin Locomotive Works. The impact of the city’s industrial growth extended into all areas as engineers and inventors served on the boards of cultural centers like PAFA. Many members of the 1870 PAFA Board came from this industrial culture. They selected Furness and his partner Hewitt to construct a new museum which would use iron and steel as they themselves had used in building their own commercial enterprises. The Board wanted to create an industrial caliber “capacious fire-proof” art museum and school. The chapters on the intrigue and battle among these board members to select Furness & Hewitt as competition winner are riveting.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was important to Frank Furness. At an early age, he learned about Emerson’s forward thinking, American-centered philosophy from his father, the Reverend William Henry Furness who was the head of the city’s First Unitarian Church. Emerson called for Americans “to represent in their culture the opportunities of their own time.” This Emersonian emphasis on the future not the past dominated Furness throughout his life.
The new technologies that make PAFA modern include: the use of iron beams to span smaller interior rooms as well as wider interior galleries. The use of steel trusses on the Cherry Street exterior façade and above the long gallery was revolutionary. Building materials of the industrial age were exposed and visible including iron columns that carried wrought-iron beams. Massive steel girders with exposed rivets span the auditorium. Modern industrial machinery created the floral and linear ornament on the stone work of the main entrance hallway. Industrial iron beams and steel columns - truly modern!
Thomas includes stunning old and new photographs. Those from PAFA’s archives are amazing since they bring the reader back to another century. The modern photographs highlight the continued integrity of Furness’s structure. The book itself is a treasure through its visually stunning pictorial representations and its splendid organization. Kudos to the author for writing a book whose meticulous scholarship proves, celebrates and christens PAFA as “the first modern” building in the world.