Tuesday, August 27, 2013

F&M's Gothic Chair

Few people know (or fully appreciate) that Franklin and Marshall College has one of the earliest academic Gothic Revival buildings in the United States (the third one in my count). Constructed in 1854, it is flanked by identical literary societies (in the Princeton mode) of two years later. What makes Franklin and Marshall's Old Main special is its connection to one of the most interesting movements in American Protestantism, known as the Mercersburg Theology, which attempted to incorporate new ideas of German philosophy (Hegel) and Romanticism (Transcendentalism). Its leading figure, John Nevin, was our college's second president. During my sabbatical leave, I took advantage of the research time afforded to me by my college to answer some fundamental questions in its architectural heritage. Did Nevin have anything to do with the design of Old Main? If not, the connections between the building and the Mercersburg Theology would be weak. I sought for an answer in the meetings of the board of trustees, and I am excited to report  that Nevin was, indeed, involved. Moreover, I discovered an alternate design scheme by leading Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan (who designed four buildings for the College 20 years later).

Like most other old American colleges, Franklin and Marshall has distanced itself from its seminarian roots, especially after a new Seminary was built across the street from Old Main (a beautiful Richardson Revival building of 1893). The process of substituting religious heritage (the German Reformed Church) with secular ideals (Franklin's Liberal Arts) has produced the occasional white-washing and erasure through renovation. But enough remains visible to help the viewer make vivid connections. One such item stands in one of my favorite spots on campus in the tower (of course) of our Gothic masterpiece. After a suspended staircase leading to the second floor of Old Main (where the chapel is located), you will find an upholstered chair with distinct Gothic features (detail above).

Since it now stands right in front of the chapel, one would think that this chair must have once belonged to the chapel. One of the earliest photos of the altar (1892) show cathedra chairs, but they are very different from this. Conversations with the College archivist determined that we still do not know its origin. One idea is that the chair came from one of the literary societies.

Looking at the Gothic Revival furniture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reminded me of the pricelessness of Franklin and Marshall's Gothic jewel. But I was also saddened by the utter disregard for architectural heritage during the chapel's 1992 renovation. The chair is located in a spot that is both intimate (away from the foot traffic of the administration that uses Old Main) but within the vertical axis of the tower. As we begin our academic semester with Convocation, I hope to visit it regularly and reflect on America's wonderful intellectual history. If

1 comment:

Tyko said...

Nice, Kostis. The chair may have come from Goethean. Ask Jim Peterson, who was here longest and when Goethean housed the Art Department

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States