University City Historical Society

Furness Library, University of Pennsylvania

Bounded by 34th Street below Walnut Street

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places May 19, 1972

Note: Two National Register forms were completed for the Furness Library. The first was researched and prepared by George Thomas in 1971. The second was researched and prepared by Carolyn Pitts in 1984. Both are presented here in chronological order.

1971 Nomination Form, by George Thomas


The Furness library of the University of Pennsylvania is a large red brick, brownstone and terra cotta building which was designed by the firm of Furness, Evans and Co, and was erected in 1888. It is a rich and complex building, one which gave a degree of order to the University campus because of the careful site orientation originally intended by its architect: the elements of entry porch, tower and apse-ended reading room recede along a line partially paralleling the diagonal of Woodland Ave. which intersected the main campus block, while the great tower and chimney signal the interruption of Locust Street, closed in the 1870's when the University moved west. Those streets no longer exist, and thus some of the reasons for the form of the building are less apparent now than they once were.

Furness Library
The Furness library of the University of Pennsylvania is a large red brick, brownstone and terra cotta building which was designed by the firm of Furness, Evans and Co, and was erected in 1888.

The exterior form of the building reveals in large measure the activities within. The entrance is clearly defined by the stairs and its openness and connects with an equally obvious stair tower which serves an the public means of access to all of the spaces of the building. Behind the tower is a large tile-roofed structure, richly fenestrated above and enclosed below, shielding the reading room from the mundane world, while providing excellent lighting for the users within. To the south, a series of great arches, repetitious in form and roofed with great sheets of glass revealed by visual form the role of this space in enclosing the stacks of the library. At the same time, they were intended to be extendable should the library's space needs change. That arcade in now covered on the front by a perpendicular gothic room which does little for the building but in unobtrusive enough as ivy increasingly covers it. The intended southerly growth was prevented in this century by the addition of the Duhring Wing, by the same firm, and thus in keeping with the feeling of the older work. Apart from these additions the building's external appearance is largely as Furness intended it.

Furness Library: exterior detail
The Furness library of the University of Pennsylvania, detail of the porch.

On the interior entrance and stair tower are largely as they were designed, the only major change being the loss of the great lamps which stood on the newel posts. In the great hall which combines the roles of information area with staff desk and card catalogues, as well as current periodicals, a large, bold fireplace guards the space and dominates the room. Even though a new level has been added by a new floor at the second level, the room still functions, although something of the spatial sequence of progressively larger spaces from entrance to tower to this space is diminished — but even so there remains a grandeur typical of Furness's best work, while the terra cotta and brick colors and surfaces make for great spaces of any university building in the country.

Statement of Significance

The significance of the Furness library lies in two major areas: as a survival of the much decimated oeuvre of an important Philadelphia architect, and on its own merits as a building. This building is one of the few remaining public facilities designed by Frank Furness, an architect who did so much to shape Philadelphia in the last third of the 19th century. With the destruction of Broad Street station, the Arcade Building, the B & 0 Station, the Library Company building, as well an many of the great commercial structures which Furness designed, only the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the First Unitarian Church and this building remain near the heart of the city and readily accessible to the public.

It is on the basis of its merits as a building which make it worth visiting and preserving, and for which it deserves national recognition. Two facets of the building merit particular attention, facets which attracted the attention of Louis Sullivan, a pupil of Furness in the 1870's: the logic of its planning and the vigor of the design. It is the former quality generally considered by historians to be most significant, and which caused the building to be highly regarded during the 1890's as one of the most successful libraries in the country. As a problem in the circulation of people, it is masterful, anticipating in the stairhall by some seventy years the served-servant concept currently articulated by Louis I. Kahn, while the use of light to focus spaces and activities is worthy of study. Technologically the building is of interest in the rich fusion of steel, cast iron, structural glass and brick.

The design of the building marks one of the clearest statements in the 19th century about the differentiation of form because of differences of function, while the spaces themselves are designed to serve specific needs. This can be said to be the beginning of modern functionalism which will follow from the Furness office, through its "descendents" in the work of pupil Sullivan and his pupil F. L. Wright. Equally important is the reshaping of the "Venetian Gothic" idiom into a highly personal style, one which leaves eclecticisms behind and marks the beginning of that movement which will search out and achieve an original American style of design.

Bibliographical References

1984 Nomination Form, by Carolyn Pitts


A major work of Frank Furness, an important late 19th century architect, the library was a masterpiece of design when built. Begun in 1888, the exterior appears to be a red-brick and stone, Gothic ecclesiastical structure with gargoyles and crockets and with the Romanesque details of large rounded arches and heavily rusticated stone. The building is constructed of iron and brick with terra-cotta and smooth and pecked redstone trim. The plan is approximately 140 feet along an 8 bay front by 80 feet with a three story lateral book stack. There were side and rear additions, in fact, the library was designed to be added to; the book stack wing could be extended as needed with the growth of the collection. Part of the integrity of this building is its passage through time with additions as part of its historical importance (There were changes and additions in 1914, 1923, 1931, 1947, 1963, and 1982).

Furness Library
The Furness library of the University of Pennsylvania, a Gothic ecclesiastical structure with gargoyles and crockets and with the Romanesque details of large rounded arches and heavily rusticated stone.

There are four stories on a raised basement with a five-story square battlemented tower, a tile hipped roof with cross gable on the main section and with tiled conical roof on the apsidal north end and glass gable, shed roofs on the book stacks.

The Entrance is a massive porch of dressed stone that leads one into the entry which is dominated by a great iron staircase that rises the full height of the 95 foot tower. In Furness' original design the main reading room and tower were on the left, and to the right, the three-story housing for the stacks.

The main area of the library was the large catalogue room whose walls originally rose majestically to an iron-vaulted ceiling three stories above. Unfortunately, the third story was closed over in later years to gain more usable space. The catalogue itself called forth favorable comment for it stood between public and staff areas, and was accessible from both sides. To the north of the catalogue room is the large apsidal-shaped reading room, divided into six alcoves, and rising to a high-vaulted ceiling carried on curving iron beams radiating around the semicircular apse. The stacks were in a wing to the south that was designed to be extended a bay at a time by simply pushing out the end walls on Jack screws and adding more metal book stacks. Light flooded the stacks-through the glass roof and down through a novel system of translucent glass floors that, with the exception of the iron supports, were not butted into the metal stacks, but rather floated freely through the aisles allowing circulation of air as well as light.(1)

It is the monumental foliate detailing that distinguishes the interior. There are the typical Furnessian compressed columns and the elegant terra-cotta ornament that embellish his buildings. The newest addition to the building houses the Louis Kahn Collection as well as a rare architectural book collection.

One of the most significant differences between the library and Furness' earlier buildings can be seen in the metalwork especially in the stair tower. No longer was Furness designing his own metalwork, with its unique cusped and abstract vegetal forms, such as those seen in the stair rails of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.(3)

This ready-made ornament is the result of Philadelphia becoming a center of ironworking with firms such as Wood and Perot and Samuel Yellin. They achieved national fame with their products. Frank Furness was aware of technological innovations and adapted his ornament to standardized motifs that could be more easily produced.

The Furness Library is one of the last Ruskinian Victorian buildings but it was, in addition to its Victorian aspect, an uncompromising functional master-, piece. It's ornamental interiors would soon be replaced by in America Neo-Classic purity as practiced by McKim, Mead and White.

Statement of Significance

Frank Furness is now recognized as one of the most important architects of the 19th century and, along with H.H. Richardson, the most important designer of libraries in the country. The University of Pennsylvania library was considered the most innovative library of its time. It was one of the first to separate the reading room and book stacks. Books were kept in a separate wing, which was designed so that the rear wall could be removed on jackscrews and new bays added as needed. Light was admitted through translucent glass floors and a sloping glass roof.

The building was started in 1888, completed in 1890 at a cost of $200,000, and dedicated in 1891. Librarians considered it a masterpiece of library planning and function. At the dedication, the University's Provost, Dr. William Pepper, said, What we see here today is indeed impressive. The genius of the architect has wrought into this admirable form the complex needs of a great library. The Library Journal (August,, 1888) considered it the nation's best college library building.

Ultimately it is the rich foliate ornament that covers the exterior and interior in contrast with the color of the building material — brick, limestone, and terracotta — that makes the structure so unique. The penchant for a personal ornament reached its fullest expression in the work of Louis Sullivan a decade later. The library interior is made even richer by beautiful leaded-glass windows embellished with pithy sayings from Shakespeare and Greek and Latin classics. The windows are in keeping with Ruskin's philosophy concerning hand crafts and moralizing. Probably meant for students, one of the most beautiful reads, Talkers are no great doers. Gothic types of ornament also embellish the large fireplace in the reading room that is reminiscent of the Queen Anne decoration of Shaw and Webb in England and of Ware and Van Brunt and H.H. Richardson in America.

"However, Furness also embraced modern technology, and among the most noticeable interior features of the building is the substantial use of exposed iron. In part, this is explained by the influence of Viollet-le-Duc, who espoused this practice. The cusped iron brackets supporting the lantern in the reading area were probably inspired by the Frenchman's design for a similar construction in his Entretiens sur llarchitecture" (Vol. II, PI. 19).



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