PennDesign works to preserve forgotten work by architect Frank Furness

Zip along Kelly Drive too quickly, and you’ll likely miss it—a brownstone arch that sits right at the highway’s edge, flanked by steps that lead up the hill.

It’s not difficult to see why people just pass by. The arch is tagged with graffiti. There’s no sidewalk to encourage pedestrians to walk under the stone structure. Vines and trees partially obscure the ornate arch from view.

Ruins in a historic city such as Philadelphia are nothing new, but this structure happens to hold significance: It is attributed to Frank Furness, an acclaimed Victorian-era architect responsible for designing landmarks that include Penn’s Fisher Fine Arts Library and the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Furness' incredible influence is still being felt--and appreciated--today. Furness 2012 is a series of events, exhibitions, and openings that celebrate the architect on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1912.

And now, due to a joint effort between students and faculty from PennDesign’s Historic Preservation program, the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, and the Association for Preservation Technology, the Furness arch, a lesser-known work by the architect, is getting placed in proper historical context and receiving a much-needed cleaning.

The effort began when Brett Sturm, a second-year Master of Science student in the Historic Preservation program, was assigned to study the Furness arch for a project in Professor Frank Matero’s class.
“I had to ask Frank, ‘Where is this thing?’” says Sturm, who searched on Google Maps Street View for the arch’s location.

Once he found the arch, Sturm had to assess its current condition (poor) and research its background. He discovered that the arch’s present-day location on Kelly Drive was not its first. The Furness arch was, in fact, constructed for the 1876 Centennial Exposition—the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which, Sturm says, was the “biggest party that had ever been held in the United States up to that time.”

As part of the Centennial, each state’s exhibit included a house, where different products unique to that state were displayed. Furness’ arch was part of the Connecticut house in West Fairmount Park, since that state was famous for Portland brownstone, the arch’s building material.

“It’s such an interesting story on multiple levels,” says Lauren Drapala, a conservator with the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, who worked to secure funding and city permission for an arch clean-up day. “This arch is part of this [Centennial] moment and it gets to mark a very important throughway.”

In 1886, a decade after the Centennial Exposition, the arch was moved to its current location.

“It was part of a whole different landscape in terms of how people used and accessed Fairmount Park,” Sturm explains. “People would get on steamboats at the Waterworks and ride up the Schuylkill, just for fun, and there was actually a steamboat landing where today, the Strawberry Mansion Bridge is.”

Riders would disembark from boats, walk up a set of stairs that led from the river, and then cross under the Furness arch to take a second flight of stairs up to Strawberry Hill Mansion.

But Sturm found that the arch’s current location is less-than-ideal when it comes to keeping the arch in good condition. It’s a wet site, and that creates a problem for brownstone, which is comprised of sandstone with a high volume of clay. Brownstone, Sturm says, is hydrophilic, which means it readily absorbs water. When brownstone sucks up water, it expands, which causes it to pull apart.

“There’s a lot of internal stress in brownstone when you get it wet,” says Sturm. “It’s a notoriously bad building material.”

Before Sturm, Drapala, and the other volunteers could even get to work on the clean-up day in October, they first had to clear trash that had accumulated around the arch. They also trimmed small trees, bamboo, vines, and other invasive urban plant species that threatened to choke the structure.

Sturm explains the preservationists were also able to chip away at some of the older mortar between the stones, which had a high concentration of cement. This old mortar actually becomes impervious to water, and forces moisture to instead travel through the stones itself, which renders them apart. The team replaced the less-porous mortar with materials that contained a higher amount of lime. They were also able to remove some of the graffiti that had marred the surface of the arch.

Drapala, a 2010 graduate of the Historic Preservation program, says she is working to coordinate a second clean-up day in the spring, in conjunction with the city’s biannual “LOVE Your Park” volunteer effort.

“I think spaces like this are perfect ties-in to try and help us understand how the city is constantly evolving and how what we’re doing is part of the same tradition,” Drapala says. “You never know what’s going to change and what will adapt.”

Furness arch-slideshow