Among the winding pathways of the tastefully pristine UPenn campus, it’s difficult to choose any one building as a standout among the many beautifully diverse structures. Architecturally, the campus is sort of a microcosm of Philadelphia, blending modern and classic design while somehow enabling the visitor to forget about their busy urban surroundings. And yet, one structure seems to stick out from the group, almost a ‘red’ headed stepchild to the other buildings that surround it. With red sandstone and terracotta complete with gargoyle heads, this “what the?” inducing structure is officially called the Anne & Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library, but is commonly referred to as the Furness Library.
Designed by acclaimed architect Frank Heyling Furness (1839-1912), the Fisher Fine Arts Library may just be one of our favorite structures in Philadelphia. And that’s really saying something. Completed in 1890, its original purpose was to be the university’s primary library and archaeological stronghold. Looking like the combination of a castle and a church, this Venetian Gothic library is ideologically a mess but realistically a masterwork. With that in mind, we could not believe that building was generally rejected by critics. Within a decade, the museum had moved out of the building, and the main library was moved to the Van Pelt building in 1962. In the early decades of the 20th century, some attempts were made to hide the building’s facade and alter its color. Luckily, by the time it faced the possibility of demolition in the mid-60’s, its genius had been realized. Significant restoration soon followed. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, it is now named after its primary benefactors.
The Furness Library officially became a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and rightfully secured its place in history. Frank Furness’ legacy is not only survived through his masterwork, but several other incredible buildings throughout his hometown of Philadelphia (he designed more than 600 buildings total). Maybe you have heard of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts or the First Unitarian Church? So next time you’re walking around town and see a normal building that looks like castle or a cathedral, whether he built it himself or merely influenced the architect, local guy Frank Furness probably had something to do with it.