The Historic Landmark Building

PAFA during its first year of 1876. Photo by Frederick Gutekunst.


On April 22, 1876, while America celebrated its centennial, PAFA marked an important milestone in its then 71-year history with the opening of its new building. While the museums in New York City and Boston (both founded in 1870) were but fledglings, PAFA began its eighth decade in a striking and revolutionary new home.

PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building is considered one of the finest surviving examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in America. It provides the museum with a magnificent setting for the presentation of its 19th-century collections and special exhibitions. As the modernist architect Louis I. Kahn observed, it is a life-giving and inspired building.


The building, designed by the Philadelphia firm of Frank Furness and George Hewitt, is generally considered to be primarily the work of Furness, who finished the project after the partnership dissolved in 1875. Furness had been a pupil of Richard Morris Hunt, who introduced him to the aesthetics of the modern Gothic revival. This included John Ruskin's appreciation of the richly colored designs of 14th-century Venice, Owen Jones's and Christopher Dresser's Eastern influenced ornament, and Viollet le Duc's use of foliated decoration combined with cast-iron architecture.


Rising 70 feet above the sidewalk, the PAFA building must have seemed a towering fortress in 1876. Today, dwarfed by more recent buildings, it looks like a decorated jewel box. On the facade, heavy courses of dark stone rise toward a roofline marked with such colorful elements as red and black brick patterning, fanciful floral motifs, and a bas-relief frieze depicting famous artists of the past. A gothic window dominates the central pavilion and creates a motif that recurs inside.

After entering through a low vaulted hall, the visitor steps into the spectacularly ornamented Grand Stairhall. Its staircase, bordered by richly tiled floor and walls, and bronze and mahogany banisters, sweeps upward to the gallery level. This grand space is ringed with gothic arches carrying gold rosette-studded walls. The vaulted ceiling above is painted a brilliant blue with silver stars. Beyond are the galleries where foliate columns support exposed steel beams, one of several radical design elements in the building. 

Reading List on the Historic Landmark Building

(Please note that there are also separate reading lists for the Museum, the School, and for Thomas Eakins.)


Berger, Martin A., Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005)

Lewis, Michael J. Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind (W. W. Norton & Co., 2001).

O'Gorman, James F. The Architecture of Frank Furness, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973), pp. 80-85.

Orlowski, Mark B. "Frank Furness and the Heroic Ideal," (Ph.D. diss. University of Michigan, 1986) [1 copy in the Academy Library].

Thomas, George, Lewis, Michael J., and Cohen, Jeffrey. Frank Furness: The Complete Works (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991, Revised Edition, 1996).


"Architectural Treasure Is Restored." Form and Function 2 (1976), pp. 4-7.

Berman, Avis. "Furness of Philadelphia: Two Masterpieces of American Architecture." 46 Architectural Digest (Oct. 1989), pp. 314-22.

Boyle, Richard. “The Restoration of the Furness Building of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.” Nineteenth Century (April 1975), pp. 22-26 [originally published in the 1975 University of Pennsylvania Hospital Antiques Show catalogue, with different lead illustration].

Campbell, William. "Frank Furness: An American Pioneer." Architectural Review 110 (Nov. 1951), pp. 311-16.

"Fearless Frank Furness." Architectural Forum 112 (June 1960), pp. 109-10.

Hershey, William D. "Gilded Geography: Mapping Frank Furness." Arts Exchange 3 (May-June 1977), pp. 20-24, 75-81.

Lewis, Michael J. “The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as Building and as Idea.” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805–2005: Two Hundred Years of Excellence. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2005.

List, Terrence G. "The Philadelphia Furness Built." The Philadelphia Inquirer (Nov. 20, 1989), pp. 20-21 [Weekend section].

Monahan, Anne. "Of a Doubtful Gothic: Islamic Sources for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts." Nineteenth Century 18 (Fall 1998), pp. 28-36.

Morton, David. "Furness Unfettered." Progressive Architecture 11 (Nov. 1976), pp. 50-53.

Myers, Hyman. "The Buildings of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts." Antiques 121 (March 1982), pp. 679-89.

Leibold, Cheryl. "The Historic Cast Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts." Antiques & Fine Art (Spring 2010), pp.186-191


Brochures about the building have been issued at various times. These can be consulted in the Archives. The current brochure is sold in the Museum Store for $3.50.

Other Resources

The PAFA Archives also houses the 1871 building prospectus, cornerstone and inauguration programs, a small amount of correspondence and invoices, clippings, photographs, building fragments, and other materials.

The Archives is open to qualified researchers by appointment only. The Academy Library, on the third floor of the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building, has copies of all published materials listed above. The Library is open to students and alumni of the Academy.

The original Furness/Hewitt drawings for the building are part of the Museum collection. They can be examined by appointment only. Apply in writing to the Museum Registrar. Photographs of these drawings are available through the Rights and Reproductions Dept. A packet of six photocopies of the drawings is available for $1 from the Archives.

Photography of the building interior is allowed, without flash, by appointment with the Rights and Reproductions Dept. Photography of the exterior of the building may be taken at any time without permission. File photography of the building is extensive. Apply to the Archives to examine these materials.