Thursday, July 25, 2013

An architectural gem: the Fisher Art (Furness) Library of theUniversity of Pennsylvania

This past weekend I attended the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, held at the University of Pennsylvania. For some attendees who had never traveled to Philadelphia, the cultural and historical offerings off-campus -- including Independence Hall, the Franklin Institute, and the Museum of Art -- were a huge attraction, and the SHARP organizers arranged tours to such sites. But for me, the biggest draw was right at UPenn: the Fisher Art Library, which had been closed on previous occasions when I had tried to drop-in for a visit (see photo 1 below). Entering the library, it seemed that every inch of the structure provided some visual delight for me (see photos 2-4, below).

The architect, Frank Furness (1839-1912), had already designed two other libraries in Philadelphia -- for the Mercentile Library and the Library Company -- when he was hired to build a library for UPenn. Interestingly, scholar George Thomas has noticed many parallels between Furness's library designs and those of factories in other areas of Philadephia (see Thomas's article in the April 2002 issue of Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography). However, librarians' expertise is evident in the structure, too. During the planning stages, Furness consulted with Melvil Dewey and Justin Winsor, both long-serving officers in the American Library Association. So it may be said that their building, now called the Fisher Art Library, embodied some of the best practices of its day in terms of storing collections, enabling/inspiring people to read, and streamlining staff work procedures.

Practitioners like myself can recognize many thoughtful elements in the floorplan. For example, the library's main entrance faces major academic buildings, thus attracting students who are walking between classes. Brick, stone, and metal are used throughout, as a way of fireproofing, yet numerous clear-glass windows provide natural light for readers (see photo 5). The library has what was then called a "lobby and conversation area" on the 1st floor near the entrance, which no doubt continues to to encourage scholarly and social dialogue while containing some of the noise. The circulation ("delivery") desk, another heavily-trafficked part of any library, is near the entrance as well (see photo 6). Conversely, the reading and reference areas are sited at a quieter end of the building (see photo 7).

Although my research focuses on public libraries, the Fisher Art Library isn't a site to be passed up. It is one of the best surviving examples of 1880s library architecture in Pennsylvania, and possibly the greatest building designed by Frank Furness. Built in 1888-1891 in an "eclectic picturesque" style, it includes  a mix of beautiful ornamental details from many traditions (see photos 8 and 9). I don't know enough about architecture to describe them intelligently, but hopefully the pictures below will speak well for me. I may uncover other fine examples of library structures during my sabbatical, but it will be hard to beat the Fisher Art Library!

Photo 1: The Fisher Art Library of the University of Pennsylvania

Photo 2: The main entrance of the Fisher Art Library. What a nice fanlight!

Photo 3: The main staircase of the Fisher Art Library. Beautiful lamps!

Photo 4: Another view of the Fisher Art Library's main staircase. Note the intricate ironwork

Photo 5: Large windows allow natural light to stream into the Fisher Art Library

Photo 6: The Fisher Art Library's circulation desk is conveniently located near the entrance

Photo 7: A view looking toward the circulation area from the Fisher Art Library's reading and reference area. The archways give it a feeling of seclusion from busier parts of the library. Also note the decorative spiral staircase on the left

Photo 8: The treads on the spiral staircase at the Fisher Art Library. Interesting jigsaw pieces are one of the many eclectic design elements of the building

Photo 9: Unlike the regal grand stairway and playful jigsaw stair treads pictured above, the fireproof metal bookshelves at the Fisher Art Library have an industrial, utilitarian look

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