Architecture

Finding Frank Furness in Northeast Philadelphia

November 15, 2021 | by Stacia Friedman

Three Frank Furness building, hiding in plain sight in Northeast Philadelphia, might as well be in the witness protection program for their lack of notoriety.

“Furness was known for his bold, eccentric designs during the Victorian Era, a style that fell out of favor in his later years and resulted in many of his more than 600 works being torn down,” said historian Patty McCarthy. Lucky for us, some of his buildings remain.

Knowlton Mansion in Fox Chase. | Image courtesy of Schon Photography

Knowlton Mansion, also known as the Rhawn Residence, was designed by Furness in the Gothic Revival style for William Rhawn, a Philadelphia banker. Completed in 1881, the three-story mansion at 8001 Verree Road in Fox Chase was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Now owned by Conroy Catering, you can rent the historic mansion for a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah.

Who would think to look for a Furness building in an old Jewish cemetery? But Mt. Sinai Cemetery, established in 1854, hired Furness in 1892 to design their chapel. At the time, Mt. Sinai was where wealthy Jews were laid to rest while their gentile counterparts were buried at Laurel Hill. Located at 1901 Bridge Street in Frankford, grave markers tick off a list of Philadelphia captains of industry who were household names: Gimbel, Snellenberg, Paley, and Rosenbach.

Mt. Sinai Cemetery’s chapel and mortuary in Frankford. | Photo: Joseph G. Brin

Furness’ involvement with the Jewish community goes back to his designing the first Congregation Rodeph Shalom at 615 N. Broad Street in 1868. It was demolished in 1927 to make way for a larger synagogue that is still very active today. Other notable Furness commissions for the Jewish community included the Jewish Hospital, the Home for Jewish Orphans, and the Home for the Aged and Infirm Israelites.

The Mt. Sinai Chapel has a high, hipped roof with many projecting bays covered with red tiles. Its exterior wall feature horizontal bands of grey stone and red terracotta.  As in many other Furness buildings, the Chapel’s many windows are topped with horseshoe arches. The interior has a steeply pitched ceiling supported by exposed arched trusses that echo the horseshoe shapes of the Chapel’s windows.

The third Furness building would have remained forgotten if not for the astute research of McCarthy. In January 2017 she shared her findings with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Society for Architectural History.

The Neilson Brown stable in East Torresdale. | Photo: Stacia Friedman

“I don’t know that anyone knew it,” McCarthy said. “We contacted a few people who have written books about Furness, and they didn’t know.” She had stumbled upon a paper written in 1913 about Torresdale history which documented the existence of the 40-acre estate of Neilson Brown, a banking heir with a passion for race horses.

That led McCarthy to take a closer look at the Neilson Brown stable which now serves as the Club House for Bakers Bay, an East Torresdale condo development on the Delaware River. Situated on lands originally bought by Charles Macalester in 1859, Neilson Brown stable was regarded as the finest stable in the country. Considering that Brown’s neighbors were a “Who’s Who” of Philadelphia’s social elite, it stands to reason that he would’ve hired a leading architect to impress his peers.

The Neilson Brown stable in the 1900s. | Image courtesy of Patty McCarthy

When a developer cleared the land in the 1970s he demolished the two mansions and a large barn, but retained the stable. Did he know it was a Furness or was he merely charmed by its Victorian design? Today, a balcony has been added and the horse stalls have been replaced by a reception area, activity rooms, and an addition which houses an indoor pool.

The name Bakers Bay derives from a Revolutionary War legend. According to local lore, a baker on the adjoining property sold bread to ships anchored in the harbor and supplied bread to George Washington’s troops. While everyone agrees there was a bake house, opinions are divided due to the fact that the land was owned by a staunch Quaker who vehemently opposed war. One thing is not in question. The architectural and social history of the Northeast merits more attention, especially by those who believe it started in the 1950s.

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About the Author

Stacia Friedman Stacia Friedman is a Philadephia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and LA on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, the Inquirer, New York Times, Broad Street Review and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history and vibrant arts scene.

20 Comments:

  1. Diane C. Al-Habieli says:

    When Rodeph Shalom outgrew its first building, the membership decided to raze the 60-year-old FrankFurness building and erect a new, larger synagogue on the same site that included a classroom wing and social spaces. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Simon and Simon. The interior reflects the Byzantine Revival style and the limestone exterior was designed in the popular Art Deco style of the period with Assyrian and Romanesque Revival overtones.”https://rodephshalom.org/the-sanctuary/

  2. kate says:

    Hi Stacia this is really great. Small footnote- though Quakers are noted pacifists they also did sell bullets during the Revolutionary war, so it makes sense that bread would be sold, too. The profits were high from bullet selling which actually is the basis of a lot of the old money among Phila Quakers. Luckily they did some good things after that. But sometimes needed some serious goading from the likes of the amazing 17th century Quaker dwarf activist and abolitionist Benjamin Lay.

    1. Ben Franklin's Tower says:

      Hello Kate, Can you provide a source for the Quaker bullet story? I would like to read more about this. TIA.

  3. John says:

    Very cool,I am very interested in Furness buildings since my brother turned me onto the architecture of Frank Furness,quite remarkable buildings.

  4. Frances LaRosa says:

    thanks so much. I grew up in Fox Chase so I have been a Frank Furness fan for ever. I’m so tired of reading about his buildings that are no longer in existence.

  5. EnduringPhiladelphia says:

    There is a reason that Furness is not linked to Rodeph Shalom today. The extant Rodeph Shalom was designed by Simon & Simon. Furness’ Rodeph Shalom was demolished in 1927 to make way for the present structure. Great article otherwise!

    1. Normadene Murphy says:

      I live in a house designed by Frank Furness – 619-621 Kater Street in Bella Vista ( South Philly) His designs are unique

  6. Marty Shore says:

    Always loved the Chapel on Bridge St. Not the location one would think a Jewish cemetery to be located.
    Frankfort at one time had a Jewish community. The old Adath Zion synagogue was located not too far from the cemetery just east of Frankfort Ave.

  7. Jerry Briggs says:

    Frank Furness’ crib was on-display at the Art Museum’s salute to French Empire furnishings.
    I was captivated by the carvings, many of which migrated to his later works.
    Cordially,
    Jerry Briggs
    Tacony

  8. Scoats says:

    So this the “garage” with no address other than “Torresdale” in Cohen & Thomas’s Frank Furness: The Complete Works, Revised Edition.

    Thanks for solving that mystery!

  9. Judy SeidemanFilipkowski says:

    I lived at Baker’s Bay for 5 years, did local history and was was excited when this story first came out about the barn!!

  10. michael p toner says:

    Excellent article, Ms. Friedman, thank you very much. Furness’s architecture is a favorite of mine, and we see so much of his work at U. of Penn, in Center City also.

  11. TCO History says:

    You missed Trinity Church, Oxford Belltower at Oxford Ave & Longshore. Not only the structure, but the interior & Bishop Chair as well. The chair given by Bickley of Pen Ryn. The Furness interior design has to be one of the few remaining, largely unchanged.

  12. Joseph J. Menkevich says:

    Just wondering – who designed the (now gone) Mount Sinai Cemetery gate, 1905 Bridge Street, Frankford, Philadelphia?

    https://digital.librarycompany.org/islandora/object/Islandora%3A63018?solr_nav%5Bid%5D=a37ee48295b81a722677&solr_nav%5Bpage%5D=0&solr_nav%5Boffset%5D=0

  13. Michael Karl says:

    I have been in Knowlton a few times and passed by it many more. Never knew it was a Furness.
    (P.S. it’s Verree Rd.)

  14. Michael Gaynor says:

    I believe All Saints Church ( Episcopal Church on Frankford Ave has design of Frank Furness

  15. Joseph J. Menkevich says:

    All Saints Episcopal Church on Frankford Ave (which is not on any historic register) was designed by Frank Wills.

    Photos of All Saints were used for comparison in a 2017 nomination of The Memorial Church of Saint Luke The beloved Physician LUKE 1946 Welsh Road.

    It is a mystery as to why the Philadelphia Historical Commission erases historic research by taking these nominations off-line.

    FRANK WILLS & RICHARD UPJOHN’S — NEO-GOTHIC ECCLESIASTICAL REVIVAL IN LOWER DUBLIN

    http://www.phila.gov/historical/Documents/1930-54-Welsh-Rd-nomination.pdf

    J.M.

  16. Nancy Kauderer Davis says:

    This was so interesting to me. We belong to Rodeph Shalom and my parents lived at Bakers Bay for many years. Have you found photos of the mansions that were torn down at Bakers Bay? I would love to see what they looked like.

  17. Euell Nielsen says:

    I KNOW WHO THE BAKER WAS!!! His name was Cyrus Bustill, and his decendant Joyce Mosely is my friend. She recently wrote a book about him. I believe it’s called Gram’s Gift. Oh, how delighted I am to tell her this information. She is now a member of the D.A.R. due to her relatives work in the Rev War.
    Blessings to all. Huzzah for discoveries.

  18. Theresa A. Mueller says:

    Hello ! Very interesting article. I was wondering how you know who was the architect of a residence. My home will be 100 in 19 years.
    Thank you

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