What’s That? Fisher Fine Arts Library windows

Shakespeare scholar and Penn lecturer Horace Howard Furness selected aphorisms for windows in the Fisher Fine Arts Library, a building his brother designed.

    • This is …
      Window in Fisher Fine Arts Library.
      Window in Fisher Fine Arts library.
    • It lives …

      In the Fisher Fine Arts Library at 220 S. 34th St., which some students describe as a Hogwarts library. The building opened Feb. 7, 1891, and was the primary library at Penn until Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center opened in 1962.

      The architect of the Fisher Fine Arts Library was Frank Furness, and his older brother, Horace Howard Furness, selected most of the aphorisms adorning many of the leaded glass interior and exterior windows in the building. The elder Furness was a scholar of Shakespeare, lecturer and longtime trustee at Penn, and chairman of the building committee for the Fisher Fine Arts Library.

      University recorder George E. Nitzsche included in his 1914 book “University of Pennsylvania: Its History, Traditions, Buildings and Memorials” a list of “mottoes on the windows and elsewhere in the library,” totaling more than 80, mostly in English, but some in Latin and Greek and one in cuneiform. Many quotes are from works of Shakespeare, from “Hamlet” to “Henry V” to “As You Like It” and beyond. After the library’s dedication in 1891, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that H.H. Furness said the mottos were “not to teach the rustic moralist how to die, but to teach the learned student how to live.”

      Library specialist Ed Deegan, who has worked there since 1972, says many windows with aphorisms have been lost over time, though it is unclear when or how. At different areas of the reading room, one can surmise where an aphorism used to be, such as by looking up at a row in which only one of the four windows is decorated.

      Book page with mottos in Fisher Fine Arts Library.
      Nitzche, G. Erasmus. (1914). “University of Pennsylvania: its history, traditions, buildings and memorials. A guide for visitors.” 5th ed. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company. (Image: Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)
    • It’s cool because …

      “The ones you see are all original,” Deegan says. He notes that when the building was being renovated in the late 1980s “they didn’t try to replace missing leaded glass except in cases where they knew exactly where it would be or what it should look like.” He says there may have been repairs to the windows and touch-ups to the lettering, but no new windows were added. Deegan says that, while leaded glass is still fairly common, the kind of elaborate work seen in the Fisher Fine Arts Library is not because it’s so expensive.

      “They spent over $15 million on this, and there were things they couldn’t do,” he says about the 1980s renovation. Now, some of the exterior windows and walls have become interior ones. The Henry Charles Lea Library addition on the building’s east side was added in 1923-24, and Deegan says the door that reads, “Talkers are no great doers” from “Richard III,” used to be the main entrance.

      “What’s That?” is a new series in Penn Today highlighting noteworthy items, iconic objects, and hidden treasures on Penn’s campus.

      Library specialist Ed Deegan and Fisher Fine Arts Library Director Mia D’Avanza assisted with archival research for this article.