First Furness, First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, Penna
“In front of the church there will be a cloister of six arches, two of which wil be occupied for doors. At one end of the cloister, there will be a circulating library. At the corner of the building there will be a tower, the lower part having a carriage porch.”
This unidentified newspaper clipping dated February 1883, of a Westcott family scrapbook, describes the prospective religious edifice designed by non-other than Philadelphia’s wondrous architect–Frank Furness (1839-1912).
Formerly at the juncture of Tenth and Locust Streets, the Furness-designed complex comprising the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia at Chestnut and Van Pelt Streets in the greater Rittenhouse Square neighborhood was preceded by two buildings at Tenth and Locust–a small brick Octagonal building designed in 1812 by Robert Mills (1781-1855) and constructed in 1813 and a larger replacement building of the Doric order designed in 1828 by William Strickland (1788-1854). In February 1882, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the congregation’s interest to “remove” to a different (more fashionable) part of the city, because, among other reasons, of the “disreputable character of the neighbor”… During this period Unitarians consisted of the intellectually elite and socially progressive and, among the members of the Philadelphia congregation, were notable citizens such as Dr. Samuel D. Gross (1805-1884), the eminent surgeon, and, of course, the aforementioned architect, Frank Furness. The architect’s father, Dr. William Henry Furness (1802-1896) was pastor of the Unitarian congregation for fifty years and then some. Dr. Furness preached his first sermon to the same congregation in 1824 from the original pulpit, in the original 1813 building. He planned his last sermon in 1875 upon his fiftieth anniversary. He continued to preach for another ten years.
The Inquirer reported that the Unitarian congregation was making its final decisions about the purchase of a lot in May 1882. The practicing architect, Frank Furness, designed the complex later that year. The “retired” minister, Dr. H.W. Furness, laid its corner stone in 1883. The eighty year old man was assisted by his successor–the Rev. Joseph May. Dedication of the first finished phase of construction, the “parish chapel,” occurred on November 27, 1884; however, a pastoral, celebratory reception was delayed until December 13, 1884, which incidentally was the day after the 1828 building was sold for $30,000 to Mr. Joshua Ballinger Lippincott, the Philadelpha publishing magnate, just two years before his death in 1886. The last worship service was held in the old building on December 22, 1884–Dr. Furness officiated. Following this “removal”, in January 1885, the bodies of those buried in the Unitarian Cemetery at Tenth and Locust were removed to the Laurel Hill Cemetery. Burials at this location began in 1811, which slightly predated construction of the original building. No doubt this was an indicator of a planned demolition of the Doric order.
Construction of the entire new complex was complete in February 1886 with the official dedication taking place on Tuesday, February 10.
“The building is cruciform, with shallow transepts, of dimensions sufficient to give a seating capacity of over 700. The material is a light limestone from Indiana. Across the front runs a corridor, giving a broad vestibule, and at one end connecting with a porte-couchette, over which a tower rises to the height of over sixty feet. It rests upon four low pillars, with capitals introducing the pavnt leaf, and is surmounted by an iron cross. In the porte-couchette hangs a handsome and curious iron lantern. The roof is covered with red tiles.”
This excerpt, part of a lengthy article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 5, 1885, describes the building in some detail with especial attention to the porte-couchette, which has since been demolished–as the congregants of second half of the twentieth century didn’t wish to afford the repairs (although some were outraged)! The interior description mentions the use of much “effective timber work,” ”the organ and choir” within the “western transept,” and walls “of deep green, with a slight decoration, imitating stone work, in gold lines.” A powerful and elaborate gilt organ, donated by Mrs. William F. Weld of Boston in honor of her late husband–no doubt a decendant of Edmund Weld one of the earliest Harvard graduates, is also mentioned. The main part of the church was originally connected to the “admirably contrived and spacious” vestry building, which contained a chapel (250 person capacity), large parlors, a kitchen, the minister’s study, a library and reading room, &tc. The vestry was constructed with an elevator, connecting the cellar and kitchen to the upper stories.
Officially, the architects were “Messrs. Furness & Evans” and, upon completion of the construction, the church was free and clear of debt. While he did not speak at the dedication service, “the venerable Dr. Furness” composed a hymn for the service.
We are lucky the remaining complex survives as their was a movement for sometime to demolish the building as the Unitarian denomination declined within the popular context of Philadelphia society. While not in the best shape, its worth a look as it is truly among the top tier of the wild in religious architecture. Apparently first Furness did something right and, in turn, his son gave us something even better!