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
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.”