Frank Furness’ Mount Sinai Chapel and Mortuary way out in Frankford? Never heard of it. Laura Teller, whose Jewish family dates back to Civil War era Philadelphia, tipped me off to it recently. For an architect, this was a fascinating discovery, like finding the lost edition of a rare book or a never-released musical recording.
Architect Frank Furness was an original, sui generis. A Civil War veteran, famously as irascible as he was talented, Furness left a striking imprint that is quintessentially Philadelphian. In his day, Furness was the consummate insider, the toast of industry captains and aristocrats. He came from an illustrious family. His father, Reverend William Henry Furness, was a prominent Unitarian minister married to the former Annis Pulling Jencks of Salem, Massachusetts. From a home brimming with intellectual ferment and charged with civic engagement, all the Furness siblings made their mark.
Unitarians and Reform Jews in 19th century Philadelphia had a certain affinity that was evidenced in exchanges between the senior Furness and leaders of the Jewish community, specifically, Rabbi Marcus Jastrow of synagogue Rodeph Shalom.
19th century immigrant Reform Jews, as a people trying to assimilate and not stand out, ironically chose, more than once, this mustachioed architect who wore loud, plaid jackets and designed muscular buildings in a boldly ornate Moorish style. It was a reflection of their sense of freedom in the new land to adopt some of the grandeur of European architecture. A major Furness commission, his first, was the original Rodeph Shalom synagogue on North Broad Street built between 1868 and 1871 (and demolished in 1925). Furness had, thus, set the stage for a smaller building design in 1889, the Mount Sinai Chapel and Mortuary at Bridge and Cotton Streets in Frankford.
Matt Singer, historian and senior writer for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, wrote an insightful social and architectural analysis, his doctoral thesis, on Furness and Jewish assimilation in Philadelphia. By the time Furness received the Mount Sinai commission, Singer concludes, he had retired the Moorish forms used to link Rodeph Shalom to Eastern Ottoman architecture. Near the turn of the century, the Arts & Crafts movement was percolating into the mainstream. Singer reads the chapel building and says, “You can see the evolution of architectural thought and values.” Despite obviously Moorish details embedded into the design, the projecting eaves of Mount Sinai’s low-slung, bungalow-style hipped roof turn away from majesty towards comfort in keeping with the Arts & Crafts movement, says Singer.
David Blumenthal has been on the Mount Sinai cemetery association board for decades, currently presiding over 17 acres of meticulously kept grounds. A genial fellow, he talks (‘rambles’) as knowledgeably about plant species and planting strategies as a landscape architect. “We invested well. We spend a fortune per acre for maintenance. I try to come up with a year round presentation. I plant for the one or two people who come through here. There’s no activity,” he says.
The chapel building itself is a dilemma. Blumenthal notes, “It has no functionality whatsoever. It’s just a pile of stones.” The cemetery association has done a partial rehab, carefully restoring the entry vestibule to an appropriately period look, accomplished with the expert guidance of now retired architect and preservationist Hyman Myers. The interior of the chapel remains undeveloped with its original pine flooring and Furness’ impressive structural wood arches still in place.
The most egregious interventions of the past, a dropped ceiling, dividing wall and 1950s floor tiles, were previously removed by the cemetery association. To Blumenthal the only new use that makes any sense would be a small synagogue. In any case, his strongest impetus is to keep the chapel and cemetery in top condition, allowing future generations to determine their use. “I am fanatic about it. This is the best maintained cemetery around. If you come here in the fog you’d think you were in Paris,” says Blumenthal who has a family plot here.
Incidents of vandalism perhaps go up and down with the general economy. The board (including Laura Teller) has contemplated security cameras and the like to combat theft and damage. Blumenthal thinks they may adopt a more philosophical stance–the tighter the security, the more attractive the challenge.
In an era of garden cemeteries, Mount Sinai served both practical and liturgical needs. The building was a crowning architectural gem set in a field of grass for family country picnics. Blumenthal says, “This was the edge of the city and the city came out to us!”
By 1880, the Jewish population of Philadelphia had grown to around 12,000. Mount Sinai symbolized unity amongst Jewish Philadelphians including some prominent families–Fleisher, Teller, Mastbaum, Lit Brothers, and Pep Boys Manny and Moe–as it represented a cross-section of congregational affiliations. Today, there is no local congregation to naturally inherit the ownership, use, and stewardship of the vintage chapel and mortuary building. The for-profit cemetery is not affiliated with a particular synagogue and, historically, never was. It is actively managed by a committed board, all of whom have relatives interred here, and several of whom are related to the cemetery’s founders.
What do you make of a famous architect’s pile of stones lost to changes in culture and demographics?
Mount Sinai Chapel and Mortuary, in its use or disuse, may be a footnote to a storied architectural career. But it is on the record, nonetheless, as Historic American Building Survey (HABS) photographs attest in black and white. Standing out in Frankford clear as day, there it is–empty for 25 years, a cherished but marooned historical artifact. Given the number of Furness buildings already torn down in Philadelphia, it’s all the more exciting to find that we harbor another intact exemplar of his gloriously idiosyncratic legacy.
But what is “our” responsibility for historic preservation? “It’s hard to sort out what to do with buildings such as that,” admits George E. Thomas, Ph.D., cultural and architectural historian, and author of encyclopedic volumes on Furness–Frank Furness: The Complete Works–and Pennsylvania architecture–Buildings of the United States: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania–among other titles. He recalls being out in Frankford in the 1970s when the Furness chapel building was used to store lawn mowers. “The fact that after 40 years it’s still here is pretty neat,” says Thomas.
Thomas points out that Furness had 700 plus commissions and while too many have been demolished, dozens still survive. “The tragedy was that Ed Bacon and the mods didn’t get that Furness was part of their world and demolished so many of his buildings,” he says. “On the other hand, the real question now is how to get people to see Furness as an original creator of the modern world…Gaudi is Barcelona’s Furness, Sullivan is Chicago’s Furness, Behrens is Berlin’s Furness, Wagner is Vienna’s Furness, Price is Atlantic City’s Furness. We need to change the national dialog and put Furness where he belongs in the pantheon of great creative artists who broke the formulas and recreated art in the model of the new industrial and mass culture world.”
In 1978, Thomas was one of the founders of University of Pennsylvania’s Program in Historic Preservation. But taking cues from Furness himself his thinking on the issue has shifted. Thomas cherishes Furness because he was a force for muscular progressivism. The architect looked ahead, not back. Thomas thinks the preservation movement spends too much energy looking back. “There are great examples that are worth preserving,” he says. But “holding onto every scrap, this is what the [preservation] movement has become to stop the evolution of the city. It’s about ‘my peer group over your group,’ in many ways a profoundly destructive force–an ideology that’s not looking at cultural realities.”
“We need to create an alternate culture that values the present and future as much as the past, conserving communities as much as physical artifacts,” he says. “‘Wall Huggers’ ought to be advised that the city needs new buildings and construction jobs.”
But while this sort of thinking is what underlies the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s recent controversial rulings to allow demolition of the Boyd Theater, the Episcopal Cathedral’s ancillary buildings, and the mansion at 40th and Pine, it doesn’t address the puzzle of a building like Furness’s Frankford chapel that’s not in development’s way. “How do we make a world that we can pass onto living, sentient beings?” asks Thomas.
What sort of city do we want? Thomas says we ought not be too precious about the past. That said, it’s probably useful to remember how moving it is to discover a lost and unexpected composition–a pile of stones with stories to tell.