While the core of Furness’ work began with a clear understanding of the logistics of a project, his works are identifiable by a remarkable array of visual motifs that enliven their surfaces and make them memorable. His father, the Reverend William Henry Furness, proclaimed that ornament was necessary and told us how well we are doing – presumably meaning both financially as manifestations of Gilded Age success, but also emotionally as buildings conveyed their social role as a gift to a community.
Furness’ ornament takes various courses. From the very beginning floral ornament, much of it abstracted in the manner of Owen Jones’ A Grammar of Ornament was incised into the yellow sandstone of 1870s houses or it grew lushly and three-dimensionally as on the brownstone tympanum above the porch of the Hockley house on 21st Street. These methods of ornament were observed by Louis Sullivan when he worked for Furness and formed the basis of his later work in Chicago. At times flowers are gathered in bunches, a bouquet for the street, as on the Robert Lewis house on 22nd Street. Floral ornament continues to appear on fireplaces and brackets well into the 1890s.
A second type of ornament has its roots in the industrial fittings and structures of machines. The counterbalances that enabled locomotive drive wheels to roll smoothly appear on the iron grills that protect the doors at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and on the porch railings of a row of houses in West Philadelphia. Drive shafts that powered machinery in the giant mills of the city were adapted to ornament for the Pennsylvania Academy stair railing; knobs and ball-bearing rings ornament the great bronze lamps at the front of the Academy. Gears, spring clips, pawls and ratchets enliven buildings and turned the new industrial age into the art of his time.
A third type of ornament takes the form of chips and gouges that break up smooth machine-made surfaces while recalling the textures of handcraft. These appear in the terra cotta panels of Penn’s library and on the mantels of various houses. They also appear in stencil patterns such as that found during the restoration of the Library Company’s Cassatt house.
And finally there are the whimsies, cross-eyed faces staring out from lintels, mustachioed faces peering out from the bases of houses that suggest the crossover from Furness’ love of caricature to the street faces of his houses. Coming of age in the gilded age meant that Furness would continue to ornament his buildings even as a later generation turned toward simplification of surface to identify their work. But Furness’ adaptation of the forces of the machine to ornament marked his accommodation to the power of his time far better than the pseudo vernacular simplification of the next generation. © George E. Thomas