Views of Frank Furness’s University of Pennsylvania Library from the tower of College Hall around the time of dedication.
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).
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.
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."(2)
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 terra-cotta 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 l’architecture (Vol. II, PI. 19).
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 masterpiece. It’s ornamental interiors would soon be replaced by in America Neo-Classic purity as practiced by McKim, Mead and White.
(1) Massey, James. Charette. October 1963 Frank Furness in the 1880’s. p. 29.
(2) Ibid, p. 29.
(3) Architecture and Ornament in Late 19th-century America. University of Delaware 1981, p. 26.