Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

If you asked me to rank Philadelphia’s must-see sights, the unique Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) building on North Broad Street would easily top my list of buildings.

To me, this one-of-a-kind creation, primarily designed by famous Philadelphia architect Frank Furness and located just up the street from City Hall, should be #1 on every Philadelphian’s bucket list. It’s that spectacular.

Interesting Oddities: 

Furness’ name is really pronounced “furnace” – I just learned the correct pronunciation about two years ago – while viewing a Penn website on Furness’ superb campus library (now the Fisher Fine Arts Library). Most Philadelphians I know still mispronounce it.

Decorated war hero – Furness is the only major architect to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was cited for bravery at the Battle of Trevilian Station, Virginia, on June 12, 1864. Captain Furness commanded Company F of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, also known as Rush’s Lancers, during the Civil War.

The gorgeous Grand Stairhall was not Furness’ original design – Instead, says Harry Philbrick, director of the museum at PAFA, the stunning stairhall sweeping up to the gallery level was the steering committee’s idea, and it worked. Furness’ design was a more conventional up-and-back stairway


5 Innovations to Look for:

A trend-setting truss: Furness installed a massive steel truss, typically used on bridges, along the north side of the building. Why? He wanted to install brick on the outside wall of the gallery above the large windows, and glass can’t hold up brick. Besides supporting the second-floor galleries, the truss allows the lower part of the wall to be a non-load bearing or “curtain wall.” As historical architect George Thomas explains, “Curtain walls are integral to virtually every modern skyscraper, pointing out just how revolutionary and future-oriented this building was.”

Furness’ futuristic plans: While the building opened five years before the Brush Electric Light Company, a PECO predecessor, went into business, Furness’s drawings show he designed for the new power source.

A passive ventilation system: Not only did Furness provide abundant lighting with a gallery skylight, his mostly-glass roof above it acts like a greenhouse, too. So, says George Thomas, now writing his latest book on the architect, Furness “designed a mechanical sash system that opened up large panels of the roof to let out heat.”

A large freight elevator: Controlled with ropes, it opens to the street and the gallery from the back of the building. The elevator transported large equipment – as well as horses – brought in twice a year as subjects for student projects. Horses don’t do steps well.

Industrial touches: Look carefully and you’ll see that Furness placed pistons, gears, cogs, drive shafts and more as ornaments inside and outside of the museum. He also used the four card suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades – in many places.

Unfortunately, Furness’ reputation suffered greatly in his later years, as more “modern” architectural styles became popular. Many of his most notable works were torn down.

But do yourself a favor. Visit this marvelous building soon. Experience its beauty, workmanship and technology. And enjoy the fact that you are standing inside a truly amazing “factory for fine art.”



Name: Historic Landmark Building, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Honors: National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark
First: Art School and Museum in the U.S.
Address: 118 N. Broad Street, Phila., PA 19102
Style: Second Empire, Renaissance, Gothic
Constructed: 1871 – 1876
Hours: Tues. – Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Closed Mondays and legal holidays.
Admission: Adults – $15; Seniors (60+) & Students (with ID) – $12; Youth (13-18) – $8; Children – 12 and under & military personnel (excluding groups) and Members – Free.
Docent Tours (free with admission): Tues. – Sun., 1 & 2 p.m.
Phone: 215-972-7600


This article was published in the Nov./Dec. 2014 issue of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.