There’s A Furness In There!

 

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Under this disturbingly ugly facade…can you see it? A Frank Furness masterpiece.

Between 1851 and 1853, social reformers established a series of “young mens’ institutes” in order to “encourage and foster among the young men of our laboring population in the city and county of Philadelphia the spirit of self improvement by the establishment of libraries, reading rooms, lectures, etc.” These Institutes were an early form of trade school, focusing on mechanical work, literacy, and instruction in the industrial arts. Five of these schools were created to serve different parts of the city: the City Institute in Center City, the Mechanic’s Institute of Southwark, the Moyamensing Literary Institute, the Spring Garden Institute, and the West Philadelphia Institute, which opened in 1853 in a quite rural location, North 39th Street just above Market.

The young mens’ institutes were very much a huge success, engendering the desire for larger, more stately buildings. In 1874, the West Philadelphia Institute commissioned Frank Furness to design a brand new headquarters at the northwest corner of 40th and Oak (now Ludlow) Streets that could educate the school’s second generation. In response, Furness created a 22,800 square foot brick dungeon with all his trademark trimmings, complete with a mansard-roofed tower on the corner topped with a pyramid.

The new structure, known colloquially as “the 40th Street Building,” opened in the winter of 1876. Despite its awesome facility, the success of West Philadelphia Institute did not last as long as the other institutes (the Spring Garden Institute survived in some form until the 1990s) and by the 1890s had become more of a private library than a school. On May 28th, 1896, the school officially went kaput and started a new life as the West Philadelphia Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which, despite absorbing the Institute’s collection, was small enough to fit in three rooms on the first floor.

The library remained in the 40th and Ludlow location for only five years before moving to the old Hamilton School at 4105 Chestnut (still standing) before relocating to its current home at 40th and Walnut in 1905. W.R. Taylor & Son Construction Company moved into the Furness building, where it remained for a quarter century. In the 1920s, Walter G. Wroe’s Dancing School took over the space.

Rose Veronica Coyle

This school was famous in its own time and became known for being the origin point for many of that era’s starlets. Rose Veronica Coyle, Miss America 1936, credited her childhood training at the Wroe Dancing School as the secret of her success. For the rest of the mid-20th Century, the Philadelphia Electric Company occupied the building, making it the utility company’s West Philly headquarters.

Following the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid bills in 1965, which guaranteed health care coverage to disabled poor and elderly, Congress passed the Vocational Rehabilitation Amendments, which authorized federal funding for vocational rehabilitation programs, and unwrote the construction of new rehab centers for the disabled. One of these was a mental health center, The Consortium, which was established in 1967 to provide mental health and retardation services to West and Southwest Philadelphia. In the mid-1970s, the agency acquired the old West Philadelphia Institute building and engaged in the near-total destruction of Furness’s great design. The first floor was porridged over and the upper portions were covered with incredibly ugly ribbed metal panels. As if to add insult to injury, the mansard cap of the corner tower was left (minus the pyramid), copper decorations from the original facade showing through, and a singular surviving Furness-style chimney mocks passing preservationists.

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The Consortium operates its Child and Adolescent Center out of the building to this day, doing great and noble work. I suppose that all makes up for ruining a Furnessterpiece beyond recognition. Nonetheless, this would be a great historical asset had the mangling of the facade never happened. It’s still under there somewhere, waiting to one day show its face to the world once again.

About the author

GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.



7 Comments


  1. GroJLart–

    How much money would be needed to buy and fix that building?

    I will devote my life to bringing it back from the brink.

  2. What an incredible find…it’s incredible that you were able to recognize it!

  3. Criminal! or it should be.

  4. I go past that building daily and always wondered what the hell was going on with that mansard roof above all that ugly siding. Who knew it was a Furness? It’s truly incredible what people will do when they just don’t care about a building (and man did people not care about buildings in the 60s).

  5. Penn professor and historian George Thomas told me years ago that there was a Furness building under that metal paneling, and when one stops to look carefully at the roof, it’s pretty clear. I’d never seen a “before” drawing or photograph, though – thanks for digging this up. I would guess that a careful peeling away of the stucco and metal would reveal much of the original facade. Take a look just around the corner at a building on the north side of Market in the 4000 block, which used to be a furniture/mattress store with a similarly depressing overcoating of the facade; discovered underneath was the original lovely brickwork and arched windows, restored about 5-6 years ago.

Recent Posts
A Call For Open Parking Data And The Better Planning It Allows

A Call For Open Parking Data And The Better Planning It Allows

July 25, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Why we can’t ignore the parking problem any longer, developer to talk loft conversion in South Philly, more student housing in UCity, videographer chronicles Philly’s “Makers,” and all taxis to get cameras > more

A Place Called The Plateau Is Where Everybody Goes

A Place Called The Plateau Is Where Everybody Goes

July 24, 2014  |  Last Light

With yesterday's dedication of the John K. Binswanger Grove of Park Champions, the Fairmount Park Conservancy ushered in a new era of growth at the Belmont Plateau. It's always been Brad Maule's favorite place to survey the growth of the Philly skyline > more

Plan To Revitalize Kensington North Of Lehigh Approved

Plan To Revitalize Kensington North Of Lehigh Approved

July 24, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Planning Commission likes what it sees from New Kensington CDC, Philadelphia’s building boom as complimentary across varying sectors, renovating affordable commercial properties in North Philly, and INHP and the economic multiplier effect > more

Landmarks, Reinterpreted

Landmarks, Reinterpreted

July 24, 2014  |  Buzz

To help celebrate its 200th anniversary, the Athenaeum asked artists to reinterpret architectural landmark's on the National Register of Historic Places. The exhibition of the work is on display until August 8 > more

Remembering The City’s Last Potter’s Field

Remembering The City’s Last Potter’s Field

July 23, 2014  |  Vantage

Reporter Michael Buozis finds himself in the Far Northeast hunting down the city's last potter's field, its only marker spray painted on a utility pole > more

Beury Building Coming To A Sheriff's Sale Near You

Beury Building Coming To A Sheriff’s Sale Near You

July 23, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Neglected North Broad tower up for sale next month, John K. Binswanger Grove of Park Champions dedication, Rina Cutler on the PPA, perhaps a 7th victim in Market Street building collapse, and SEPTA seeking service suggestions > more