Fisher Fine Arts Library Honored with 50 Year/Timeless Award

Exterior photo of the red brick Fisher Fine Arts Library

In November, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded Penn’s Fisher Fine Arts Library its prestigious 50 Year/Timeless Architecture award. Each year the award recognizes a building that has endured the test of time and still resonates with the design community and the public.

The Fisher Fine Arts Library, nicknamed Furness Library after its maverick designer Frank Furness, was completed in 1891. Furness’s design was revolutionary, pioneering the concept of separating book storage from other library functions like quiet study or group work. Isolating book space allowed the rest of the library to optimize people space with reading rooms full of light and air, and was a model some of the world’s great libraries would replicate in the following years.

Circulation to the building's five stories is through the tower's staircase, separated from the reading rooms and stacks. The book wing is enclosed in glass, with light filtering to lower levels through glass enclosed walkways. Throughout the building are windows inscribed with quotations from Shakespeare, chosen by Horace Howard Furness (Frank's older brother), a University lecturer and a preeminent American Shakespearean scholar of the 19th century.

Named a National Historic Landmark in 1985, the library underwent a major restoration from 1986-1991, when it celebrated its centennial. The Victorian design of Furness Library, often noted as a combination of a cathedral and a train station, stands in stark contrast to the neo-classical architecture characteristic of the rest of Penn’s campus, and is an enduring reminder of the power of radical design.  

Last Updated: December 8, 2023