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Hidden Visions of Frank Furness

Walking through Drexel University’s campus the other day, I was delighted to see this building, designed by Frank Furness in 1876. Few Philadelphians realize that one of the city’s greatest architects also built one of the boathouses on Boathouse Row, the Undine Barge Club. 

Furness’ building at Drexel: Paul Peck Alumni Center

With the exception of the stunning Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, buildings by Furness are now mostly hidden jewels in the city and its suburbs, so many of them have been torn down. Another still standing is the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania. But Furness’ eclectic style went out of favor in the early 20th century as glass and steel forms took hold.   

The Drexel building, on the southeast corner of 32nd and Market streets, was originally built as the Centennial National Bank, an appropriate name, given that the nation’s Centennial celebration was held that same year, 1876, in Fairmount Park. 

As put it, “Furness capitalized on the building’s location at the main point from where fair-goers would arrive from Center City and head down Lancaster Avenue to the fairgrounds, now the western part of Fairmount Park. And there was no shortage of fair-goers—10 million people went, which is equivalent to 20 percent of the population of the United States today.”

Also still standing are the gates to the Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest zoo in the country, which opened its doors in 1874, just in time for the Centennial. 

Furness Gates at the Philadelphia Zoo

The Undine Barge Club actually owns two Furness buildings: its boathouse, completed in 1882 and its upriver social club, the Castle Ringstetten, which thousands of commuters on Kelly Drive pass unknowingly. (It’s the cottage-style building with a green porch, just above the Falls Bridge. ) 

One of the things I learned  about Furness is how he combined an avant-garde use of steel, as in the boat bay of Undine, with a delight in nature. He loved using reds and greens in his buildings, the “colors of nature,” he called them. “Nature,” he wrote,  “never makes a mistake in taste.”

Undine Barge Club, photo by Dotty Brown