Penn’s first library has long legacy

Once considered outdated, Fine Arts now seen as architectural beauty

· November 23, 2010, 6:06 am   ·  Updated November 23, 2010, 12:00 am

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The Fisher Fine Arts Library was built in 1891. Before then, the University’s books were housed in a single room in College Hall. As architectural tastes have changed over the years, Frank Furness’ design has been seen as both an eyesore and a marvel.


Though the Penn community now considers the Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library to be one of the most beautiful, iconic places on campus and in the city of Philadelphia, the building was not always so popular.

Before the building — recently named among CampusGrotto’s Most Beautiful College Libraries — was dedicated as the University’s first stand-alone library in 1891, Penn’s books were housed in a single room in College Hall.

An abundance of new resources came to the University in 1883 when the new librarian James Barnwell, chairman of the library building committee Horace Howard Furness and Penn Provost William Pepper requested donations from the Philadelphia business community. While the library’s collection grew, its space did not. Because College Hall could no longer hold the materials, the school decided to erect the University Library, now Fisher Fine Arts Library.

Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal system of cataloging, and Harvard’s head librarian Justin Winsor were chosen as consultants for the project in order to make the space as useful as possible.

Frank Furness, Horace Howard Furness’s brother, was chosen to design the building. A popular local architect, Frank was known for designing major railroad stations and banks, creating hundreds of edifices across the city in the height of its industrial power. However, Penn’s was the only library he ever built.

Only a few of his buildings remain today, including the library and Drexel University’s Paul Peck Alumni Center.

According to David Brownlee, history of art professor and co-author of Building America’s First University, which details the history of Penn’s campus, the University’s original library “made sense in terms of efficiency,” using minimalist book storage kept separate from the main reading room. Brownlee likened the functionality of the space to the factory-like usefulness of Victorian era’s railroads and factories.

Brownlee said Furness’ building’s “witty eclecticism” lends the library its well-known character. The red brick facade and ornate details throughout the building are characteristic of the time it was built.

While the library originally was seen as a campus necessity and was sensible in its utility, the building lost favor with the Penn community by the early 20th century because it was considered architecturally dated. Along with Victorian design, “Furness as an architect was going out of style,” Brownlee said.

Before the Great Depression, plans were made to replace the iconic red brick with a more modern brown brick, similar to that of the now-attached Arthur Ross Gallery. However, the plans were nixed due to a near halt in University construction projects.

University officials frequently discussed demolishing the building over the following decades. The University’s post-World War II construction of new buildings made the library look outdated among the others around campus. Many thought the building was an obstruction to the extension of Locust Street to 34th Street.

The building had become overcrowded and poorly cared for by the 1950s and 1960s. However, around the same time that Van Pelt Library was under construction, a renewal of interest in Victorian architecture emerged and the building was repurposed as the Fine Arts Library.

While the library was never demolished, the edifice underwent many of what Brownlee called “rather unsympathetic changes.” The building has received numerous additions over the years in more subdued styles, such as the Charles Lea Library and Reading Room.

In the early 1920s, an additional floor was inserted to divide the main reading and reference room in half. Though the capacity of the room doubled, the room had lost much of its original design.

The library further strayed from its Furness’ vision with mismatched furniture and dirtied brick, but it was renovated and restored to its original design — with the exception of the additions — in the late 1980s. In 1992 it was rededicated as the Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library.

According to Brownlee, what once was out of style can come back into fashion. Tastes in architecture “move like a pendulum,” he said.

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