Out of the Shadows
African-American architect Julian Abele is finally getting recognition for his contributions to some of 20th-century America’s most prestigious buildings
By Susan E. TifftSmithsonian Magazine | Subscribe
In the spring of 1986, Duke University students protesting the school’s investments in apartheid South Africa erected shanties in front of the university chapel, a soaring spire of volcanic stone modeled after England’s Canterbury Cathedral. The nature of the protest prompted one undergraduate to complain to the student newspaper. The shacks, she wrote, violate “our rights as students to a beautiful campus.”
For Duke sophomore Susan Cook, the letter was a call to action. She had told only a couple of her classmates that she was related to the man who had designed the Duke chapel—indeed, who had designed most of the original buildings on the school’s neo-Gothic west campus and many on its Georgian east campus. She had never met him, but she felt certain that if he were still alive, he would support the divestment rally as wholeheartedly as she did. So she penned an emotional rebuttal. Duke’s beauty, she wrote, was an example of “what a black man can create given the opportunity.” Her great-granduncle, Philadelphia architect Julian Abele (pronounced “able”), was “a victim of apart-heid in this country” who had conceived the Duke campus but had never seen it because of the Jim Crow laws then in force in the segregated South.
That an African-American had designed Duke, a whitesonly institution until 1961, was news to nearly everyone. Abele’s role was not a secret, as documents in the university archives make clear. But it had never been acknowledged so publicly. Cook’s letter changed that. Now, an oil portrait of the architect—the first of a black person at Duke—hangs in the main lobby of the administration building. Even the university Web site devotes a page to him.
The recognition was long overdue. Abele was not the first black architect in the United States, but he was probably the most accomplished of his era. Between 1906, when he joined the all-white Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer, until his death in 1950, he designed or contributed to the design of some 250 buildings, including Harvard’s Widener Memorial Library, the Museum of Art and the Free Library, both in Philadelphia, and a host of Gilded Age mansions in Newport and New York City. Abele’s race, coupled with his self-effacing personality, meant he would not be widely known during his lifetime outside Philadelphia’s architectural community. The custom of signing sketches with the firm’s name rather than an individual designer’s also made credit impolitic to claim. “The lines are all Mr. Trumbauer’s,” Abele once said of the Free Library, “but the shadows are all mine.”
Born in 1881, Julian Francis Abele was the youngest of eight in a family of achievers that had long been a fixture of Philadelphia’s African-American aristocracy. On his mother’s side he could claim Absalom Jones, co-founder of the Free African Society, an early (1787) mutual support group for the city’s free blacks. His older brother Robert became a physician. Two other siblings were successful sign makers. “Julian’s is not a rags to riches story,” says Susan Cook, now a senior art director at the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding in New York City.
As a boy, Abele attended the Institute for Colored Youth, a Quaker-founded teacher-training school. For his prowess in mathematics he was awarded a $15 prize. He was also chosen to deliver a commencement address. His topic: the role of art in Negro life. After studying at BrownPreparatory School and the PennsylvaniaMuseum and School of Industrial Art, Abele enrolled in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He studied architectural design at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1902 to 1903.
Penn’s program emphasized the classical methods then in vogue at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, techniques that had found expression in America in the buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Abele embraced them. (His public buildings would rely heavily on Greek, Roman and Renaissance conventions while striving to harmonize with adjacent buildings and the surrounding landscape—a characteristic typical of the City Beautiful Movement that grew out of Beaux-Arts methods.) In his senior year, Willing and Able, as he was nicknamed, was elected president of the student architectural society, the highest honor his classmates could bestow, and he won student awards for his designs of a post office and a botanical museum. When he graduated from the university in 1902, he was the first black ever to do so. By then, at 21, he had already been listed as an architect in the city directory for a year.
After graduation, Abele is believed—records are spotty—to have traveled to Idaho to help his sister Elizabeth, whose husband had recently accepted a position as a small-town postmaster. When he returned to Philadelphia in 1906, Warren “Popsy” Laird, dean of Penn’s architecture program, brought Abele to the attention of Horace Trumbauer, an architect whose firm was known for creating residential palaces for local industrialists and businessmen. Initially, Abele was hired to assist Trumbauer’s chief designer, Frank Seeburger, but sometime after Seeburger left to form his own practice in 1909, Abele succeeded him.
The nature of the relationship between Trumbauer and Abele is murky. Few of the firm’s records survive, and neither man kept a diary or saved much personal correspondence. What is clear is that Trumbauer, who bootstrapped his way up through apprenticeship, voracious reading and fortuitous connections, and Abele, the formally educated, classically trained black patrician, complemented each other. “You certainly get the impression that there was a great deal of respect,” says Abele’s son, Julian F. Abele Jr., 78, a retired architectural engineer now living in Florida. “You have to give Horace Trumbauer a lot of credit for the courage to hire a black and put him in such a responsible position.”
Trumbauer had opened his firm in 1890, when he was just 21. The next year, sugar refiner William Welsh Harrison hired him to enlarge his estate in Glenside, Pennsylvania. When the estate burned down in 1893, Harrison engaged Trumbauer to build a castle-like country house called GreyTowers (now ArcadiaUniversity). By the time Abele joined the firm, Trumbauer had produced his signature Lynnewood Hall, a 110-room Palladian mansion built for mass transit tycoon Peter A.B.Widener, and Elstowe Manor, an Italian palazzo created for Widener’s partner, William L. Elkins. In 1902, he built the Elms for coal baron Edward J. Berwind. It was the first of several commissions for Newport, Rhode Island, “cottages,” including Clarendon Court, which would become notorious decades later as the venue for Claus von Bulow’s alleged injection of a coma-inducing dose of insulin to his wife, Sunny. (He was acquitted of attempted murder in 1985.)
The white entrepreneur and the African-American striver shared with their wealthy clients a yearning for respect in a society in which class, race and religion often mattered more than merit. “Trumbauer and Abele catered to these nouveau riche people who wanted a physical embodiment of their success,” says Inga Saffron, architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They wanted to invent a past. If you build yourself a French château, you give yourself a pedigree.”
James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company, exemplified this peculiarly American brand of self-invention. In 1909, Abele began work on a Manhattan mansion for Duke at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street. Three years later, when Duke, his pregnant wife and 14 servants moved into the white-marble residence, modeled on a late-17th-century Bordeaux château, the New York Times designated the building (now New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts) as the “costliest home” on Fifth Avenue. Duke followed the firm’s work and was especially impressed with Widener Memorial Library at Harvard, dedicated in 1915 to the memory of Harry Elkins Widener, who had gone down with the Titanic. In 1924, when the president of TrinityCollege in Durham, North Carolina, persuaded Duke to turn the school into a namesake university, the Trumbauer office got the nod, with Abele in the lead.
Over the next two decades, Abele’s designs enlarged and unified Duke’s small, existing east campus and helped create a new west campus a mile and a half away. Initial plans for a man-made lake and fountain never came to pass, but Abele was kept busy working on the library, school of religion, football stadium and gymnasium, medical school and hospital, faculty houses and, of course, the chapel.
In addition to DukeUniversity and Widener Library, the projects to which Abele made his most significant contributions are Philadelphia’s Free Library and that city’s Museum of Art. Dedicated in 1927, the Philadelphia library is based on the twin facades of the Ministère de la Marine and Hôtel de Crillon on Place de la Concorde in Paris, reflecting Abele’s admiration for their designer, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, Louis XV’s chief architect from 1742 to 1774.The Museum of Art, which served as the backdrop for the famous stair-running scene in the movie Rocky, sits like a massive Greek temple atop what was once a city reservoir. The Trumbauer firm collaborated uneasily on the design with another firm, Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary. Though Trumbauer architect Howell Lewis Shay ultimately came up with a compromise design for the building, Abele provided some of the building’s most dramatic perspective drawings. Architectural historian Fiske Kimball, who supervised the museum’s construction and served as its director from 1925 to 1955, described Abele as “one of the most sensitive designers anywhere in America.”
Abele also made major contributions to Whitemarsh Hall (completed in 1921), a 147-room, 100,000-square-foot mansion in Springfield, Pennsylvania, for Edward T. Stotesbury, a senior partner in the Drexel & Company banking house, and to the New York Evening Post building in Manhattan (completed in 1925 and now home to luxury condominiums). In recent years, the question of who did what at the Trumbauer firm has become a matter of sometimes contentious debate between those who say Abele designed nearly every important building the firm produced after 1909 and those who claim that all the credit belongs to Trumbauer himself. “Abele was a very talented man,” says Michael C. Kathrens, author of American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer. “But Trumbauer was the genius behind the firm.” Dreck Wilson, who is researching a biography of Abele, says that Trumbauer’s buildings before Abele took over as chief designer “were obese, monstrously heavy. When you look at Abele’s buildings, they float, they’re lighter.” Both sides may be right. “One man can’t design a building,” says Saffron. “It’s a team.”
Architect J. Max Bond Jr., who was involved in the design of the WorldTradeCenter memorial, would agree. “We tend to say, ‘That’s a building by so-and-so,’ yet many people contribute to that building and design,” says Bond. “This is particularly true with Trumbauer and Abele. Trumbauer was not a force like Frank Lloyd Wright. [His designs were] the work of a firm.”
No records describe the workings of the design process at the Trumbauer office, but in firms of the day there would typically be three principals with complementary skills: a rainmaker to drum up business, a designer and someone who turned concepts into blueprints. Apparently Trumbauer acted mainly as rainmaker, Abele as chief designer, and architectural engineer William Frank as the nuts-and-bolts person. Clearly Trumbauer valued Abele’s talent. Asked to release Abele from his contract a year after he was hired (Abele had an offer in California), Trumbauer replied, “I of course would not want to loose [sic] Mr. Abele.”
Mustachioed and impeccably dressed, Abele, who stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, treated his race as a fact, little more. Because he was light skinned, some people were unsure of his ethnicity. Although several draftsmen at his office apparently resented working under a black man, one colleague claimed never to have realized Abele was black; he simply thought he was “other.” “For all intents and purposes, Julian did not consider himself black,” says biographer Wilson. “He was almost a-racial. He buried himself in being an artist.”
In fact, Susan Cook’s assumption that her great-granduncle never saw the Duke campus because of Jim Crow laws—an assumption repeated in countless newspaper accounts—may very well be false. In the early 1960s, John H. Wheeler, a prominent black banker in Durham, North Carolina, told George Esser, then executive director of the North Carolina Fund, that he recalled Abele coming to visit the campus during construction. What’s more, in a 1989 interview, Henry Magaziner, son of Abele’s friend and Penn classmate Louis Magaziner, recalled Abele telling him that a Durham, North Carolina, hotel had refused to give him a room during a trip to the university, while accommodating his white associate, William Frank.
While the South was more restrictive, Philadelphia had its own demeaning set of social rules. Until the passage of an equal rights law in Pennsylvania in the 1930s, seating in theaters and on public transportation was generally segregated. Abele reportedly walked more than ten blocks to work each day rather than accept having to sit in the back of the city’s segregated streetcars.
Not much is known about Abele’s social life in the early years of his career. When his sister Elizabeth separated from her husband around 1906, he took her in, along with her three children, and raised them as his own. By the time he reached his 40s, the children were largely grown. Through his friend and fellow architect Orpheus “Razzle” Fisher (who later married the famed African-American contralto Marian Anderson), Abele met Marguerite Bulle, a recent arrival from Paris who was white and a protégée of Nadia Boulanger, the noted French musician and conductor. Abele, who spoke fluent French, soon arranged to take piano lessons from Marguerite, nearly 20 years his junior. No doubt Abele’s tenroom, two-bath home on Christian Street made a good impression. Located in a neighborhood of black professionals, the three-story town house boasted tasteful antiques, two Jean Honoré Fragonard paintings, a Baldwin grand piano, a sofa covered with needlepoint Abele had done himself, and several black servants. The night before the couple married in 1925, Horace Trumbauer gave them each a $1,000 bill as a wedding gift.
The Abeles had three children. The oldest, Julian F. Abele Jr., was baptized at the cathedral at Reims on an overseas trip in 1929. Marguerite Marie, known in the family as Pacquette (Little Flower), died at the age of 5 of complications from measles, and Nadia, the youngest, took her name from her mother’s mentor.
Across-cultural, interracial union would likely have been difficult for any couple, but the Abeles also had personality differences. Marguerite enjoyed card parties, movies and bingo, while Abele liked nothing better than to retreat to his third-floor den after work to read and listen to opera and “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on the radio. What finally broke the Abeles apart, however, was a messy affair. While working as an accompanist at a Philadelphia radio station, Marguerite met a young baritone named Jozep Kowalewski, who soon became a regular at the Christian Street house under the pretense of taking music lessons. By all accounts, the two fell hopelessly in love.
When Marguerite asked Abele for a divorce in 1933, he refused. She told Abele she was “dead” to him as a wife and moved into a separate bedroom. In 1936, after learning she was pregnant by Kowalewski, Marguerite grew desperate. Her solution was to wed Kowalewski in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in October 1936. Perhaps she reasoned that her “marriage” to Kowalewski (a fellow Catholic) would be sanctified by the church, if not by the state. Amonth later, she finally left Abele, who insisted on keeping the children. Jozep and Marguerite’s first child, Jeanne, was born in January 1937. (They eventually had two more children.) From then on, Abele had contact with his wife only at family functions, although he did allow Julian Jr. and Nadia to visit her.
At home, wearing a coat and tie, Abele continued to preside over formal Sunday dinners. In summer, he set up his children and a nanny in a rented cottage in the segregated beach community of Wildwood, New Jersey, arriving by train every Friday night and returning on Sunday evening. Even in hot weather, the debonair Abele could be seen striding the boardwalk in a suit and straw hat.
Thanks to ongoing projects such as the Duke campus, the Trumbauer firm was less affected than most by the crash of 1929—at first. But when mansions requiring dozens of servants became a thing of the past, so, in many ways, did Trumbauer. By the mid-1930s, the once-thriving practice was reduced to a critical trio: Trumbauer, Abele and Frank. The lean years took a toll on the hard-drinking Trumbauer. In 1938, at the age of 69, he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Wary of changing the firm’s identity at such an uncertain moment, Abele and Frank took over what their letterhead termed The Office of Horace Trumbauer, with their names underneath. Freed from anonymity at last, Abele began signing drawings with his own name and, in 1942, became a member of the American Institute of Architects.
The continuing construction of the Duke campus filled most of Abele’s final decade. He signed drawings for Cameron Indoor Stadium (finished in 1940), where the Duke Blue Devils now play basketball; later, he worked on a library addition and a physics building. Abele died of a heart attack at age 68 in 1950, before the firm completed the AllenBuilding, the Duke administration offices where his portrait would hang 40 years later. Marguerite attended his funeral at the Christian Street house, as did one of the Wideners. A three-paragraph obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted Abele’s long association with Trumbauer, but failed to mention any of the buildings he had designed.
Abele, who had focused more on art than finance, died without a will. Because he and Marguerite had never obtained a divorce, by law she and all of the children born during the marriage—including the three she had with Kowalewski—were heirs to his estate. Marguerite reportedly forfeited her individual claim, but a court guardian was appointed to represent the interests of the Kowalewski offspring, who were minors. In 1956, a trust was set up for the three Kowalewski children, to be distributed when each turned 25. Abele’s surviving children, Julian Jr. and Nadia, split the remainder of the estate.
The Trumbauer firm produced two more buildings for DukeUniversity before finally folding in 1968. In 1982, the Philadelphia Museum of Art honored Abele for his role in the museum’s design; in 2002, the Free Library held a weekend of events to celebrate the architect on the library’s 75th anniversary. “I’m sure he would have been honored,” his son Julian said. “But he would not have liked making speeches; he would not have gloried in it.”
Buildings, not speeches, are Abele’s legacy. His life serves as an inspiration for the growing number of licensed African-American architects in the United States—an estimated 1,500 out of a total of 101,000 architects are black. Abele also passed his love for his profession on to his son and to his nephew, Julian Abele Cook Sr., Susan Cook’s grandfather, who became an architectural engineer. Susan Cook’s brother, Peter, a graduate of Columbia’s architecture program, is now a principal at KGP Design Studio, a Washington, D.C.-based architecture and urban design firm. He well remembers his first glimpse of a building designed by his great-granduncle. It was on a visit with his family to Duke in the late 1970s. Driving around the campus, he turned up the long drive to the chapel. “Suddenly out of this deep green forest appeared this iconic image of Duke,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a building move you, but to have my great-granduncle build it! As a practitioner now, it’s an unbelievable legacy to live up to.”