Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Frank Furness
Architecture in the Age of the Great Machines
by George E. Thomas
University of Pennsylvania Press, 312 pp, cloth $59.95

The rehabilitation of Frank Furness, whose idiosyncratic Victorian buildings scandalized generations of Philadelphians, began in earnest with Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). Venturi praised Furness for the exact same reason that academic critics had scorned him, for his boundless, nearly vulgar vitality. When Venturi called the National Bank of the Republic “an almost insane short story of an ogre’s castle on a city street,” he meant it as a compliment. Subsequent scholarship has followed Venturi’s lead, invariably stressing the wayward side of Furness.

George Thomas’ book is a useful corrective to the popular image. His Furness is not a rogue architect but a product of the distinctive architectural culture of Philadelphia. Many of Furness’ clients were involved in various aspects of the iron industry and were at ease with new forms and modern materials; they were also unusually well-informed. This helps explain Furness’ radical decision to expose the iron construction of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871–76) and to flaunt its beams and rivets. This was his first mature building and it anticipated much of his subsequent work, particularly the mighty train stations of the 1880s and 1890s, almost all demolished, and the innovative library of the University of Pennsylvania.

The book, however, is by no means complete. The reader will find no mention of Furness’ scientific experiments of the durability of various flooring materials; the Fire-proof Flooring Co. that he incorporated in 1890 to exploit his patented concrete floor; or his brilliant invention of an ornamental panel for ocean liners that would resist salt air as well as the stresses and strains of a moving vessel. A second volume is needed to round out the picture. In the meantime, we have this original and imaginative study of architectural patronage, which significantly enhances our understanding of Furness, of Philadelphia, and of American architecture.

Michael J. Lewis
Williams College