Building history

A Northeast historian plans to reveal newly rediscovered information about a 140-year-old building during the May 20 History Fair.

Embracing the past: Patty McCarthy rediscovered that architect Frank Furness designed and built the present-day clubhouse for Baker’s Bay Condominiums (above) as a horse stable some 140 years ago (below). PHOTOS: “THE BRISTOL PIKE” (above) / JACK MCCARTHY (below).

A Northeast-based historian plans to reveal newly rediscovered information about a very old and grandiose local building during the Northeast Philadelphia History Fair on May 20 at Holy Family University.

Patty McCarthy will elaborate on her recent finding that celebrated architect Frank Furness designed and built the present-day clubhouse for Baker’s Bay Condominiums as a horse stable some 140 years ago.

In January, McCarthy wrote a report on the subject and shared it with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Society for Architectural History. She will present it publicly for the first time at the History Fair, which is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Famed for designing landmarks such as the University of Pennsylvania library, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, Furness also built several prominent buildings in the Northeast during a 45-year career that followed his meritorious service as a Union Army captain in the Civil War. Furness, who died in 1912, was a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.

Furness was known for his bold, eccentric designs during the Victorian Era, a style that fell out of favor in his later years and resulted in many of his more than 600 works being torn down. But his surviving designs, including Knowlton Mansion in Fox Chase and the memorial chapel at Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Frankford, have since rebounded in popularity, as has his acclaim within the architectural profession.

“Today, there are not a whole lot of (his buildings) left, so architectural historians are trying to preserve what’s there,” McCarthy said.

The Furness connection at Baker’s Bay seemed to have been lost to history.

“I don’t know that anyone knew it,” McCarthy said. “We contacted a few people who have written books about Furness, and they didn’t know.”

McCarthy stumbled upon the connection while researching another prominent Northeast resident, Edward Morrell, in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s City History Society files. Around 1913, a City History Society member and attorney, Thomas Kilby Smith Jr., authored a paper about the history of his native Torresdale community. Smith wrote that he grew up in a house not far from the 40-acre estate of Neilson Brown, a banking heir with a passion for breeding and racing horses.

In her report, McCarthy quoted Smith’s typewritten paper: “About 1876, Mr. Brown indulging a hobby for fine horses, provided for his stables a plant far more commodious, although perhaps even less artistic than his house. This stable, designed by Mr. Frank Furness, was for its day quite the most elaborate in the country, and during Mr. Brown’s life was always maintained both in horses and equipage on the highest scale.”

In the 1890s, Brown became the second vice president of the Four-In-Hand Club, a group of horsemen specializing in use of carriages drawn by four horses under the command of a single driver. The coaches were also known as “Tally-Hos.”

After Brown’s 1905 death, another family bought the estate and remained there until 1971, when the property was sold to the developer who built Baker’s Bay condos. The developer demolished a large barn and two mansion houses, but retained the stable for use as a clubhouse.

Today, the clubhouse has been modified with the addition of a second-story deck to the front of the building as well as a rear first-floor addition. A few ornamental components of the original exterior design have been removed or modified. Inside, the horse stalls have been replaced with a reception area, offices, activity rooms, a meeting room and a kitchen, McCarthy wrote.

Admission to the History Fair is free. ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.