William Henry Furness, Frank Furness, and Louis Sullivan: from transcendentalism to architecture, 1802-1924
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William Henry Furness (1802-1896) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) grew up together in Boston as Romanticism loosened Enlightenment thinking and Unitarianism emerged from Congregationalism. In the 1830s, Furness, Emerson, and other nonconformists, reacting to perceived hypocrisies in Unitarianism, established Transcendentalism. Their progressive ideology—Romantic, open to the wonders of science and the natural world, democratically empowering in its concept of self-reliance (the God-within), and fostering a sense of Divine wholeness—played a significant role in shaping the ideology and architecture of Furness’s son, Philadelphia architect Frank Furness (1839-1912), and of Frank’s protégé, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), himself a child of New England Romanticism. Cultural and architectural history largely disregards this Furness-Sullivan connection, due in large part to the misguided, yet widespread narrative that promotes architect H. H. Richardson (1838-1868), as opposed to Frank Furness, as Sullivan’s muse. This pairing—notably indifferent to intellectual thought—not only sidelines Furness, a remarkable architect, but also misrepresents Sullivan as revealed in his writings and architecture. And it skews the history of “organic” architecture off-course. This three-generational Furness-Sullivan study seeks to fill these voids and rectify these misconceptions. Chapters One and Two belong to William Henry Furness, Philadelphia’s Transcendentalist-Unitarian minister, scholar of Jesus, abolitionist, and Emerson’s lifelong, “intimate” friend. Chapter Three probes essays on architecture by Goethe and Coleridge, who inspired the Transcendentalists, by Emerson and Furness, and by other Romantics of varying broad-mindedness. Chapters Four and Five focus on Frank Furness, whose youth, steeped in his father’s Transcendental “Natural Christianity” and abolitionism, impelled him to create innovative, emphatic architecture that “had something to say,” which drew Sullivan to him. Chapters Six and Seven assess Sullivan, who formulated his Transcendentalist “Idea” and applied it “in beneficence” to society through his Romantic-pragmatist writings on “natural thinking,” democracy, education, and architecture; and through his progressive, expressive buildings, which, like Furness’s, were created in “the image of his thought.” The Epilogue examines Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, at the crux of the claim that Sullivan followed Richardson. Factual evidence and the Transcendentalist thought currents that unite our three protagonists wash this myth away.