Saturday, April 30, 2011

Steel Beam Vernacular: S 40th St

At first glimpse,the floral detail on the left seems completely decorative. This particular flower springs out of a horizontal steel beam. And at closer inspection, the flower's stigma is a 6-sided bolt that locks two C-channel beams into the structure. The steel beam spans a large shop-window and supports the exterior wall of a 3-story building above, similar to the situation in 222 Chapel St. As discussed earlier, the language of flower-bolts was introduced to Philadelphia by Frank Furness. In addition to the Furness Library at Penn seven blocks away, Furness's firm designed a number of row houses a few blocks away in West Philadelphia.

I don't think that this building is a Frank Furness original, but it clearly imitates his language. This is most evident in the vertical wooden pilaster that supports the steel beam. Executed entirely out of wood, this vertical support braces the steel with the vocabulary of medieval architecture. Although less refined, it derives from the interior steel beam of Furness's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Like his contemporaries in Chicago (Sullivan, etc.), Furness merged Ruskinian creativity with the engineer's innovations. The end result became a distinct Furness style. The hundreds of buildings that he designed in Philadelphia, moreover, transformed this highly personal vision into a vernacular vocabulary that now characterizes 19th-century Philadelphia. The steel beams are not always evident, but I hope the last few postings have helped my readers to see them.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States