In 1902, when Julian F. Abele graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in architecture, he was the school’;s first-ever black graduate. The debonair Philadelphia-born architect went on to design hundreds of elegant public institutions, Gilded Age mansions, and huge swathes of a prestigious then-whites-only university’;s gracious campus. Yet the fact that an African-American architect contributed so many significant Beaux Arts-inspired buildings to skylines up and down the East Coast was virtually unknown until a political protest at Duke, the very university whose campus he largely designed, was held in 1986.
Abele’;s contributions were not exactly hidden—during that era it wasn’;t customary to sign one’;s own name to designs— but neither were they publicized. When Abele died in 1950, after more than 4 decades as the chief designer at the prolific Philadelphia-based firm of Horace Trumbauer, very few people outside of local architectural circles were familiar with his name or his work. In 1942, when the formally trained, long-practicing architect finally gained entry to the American Institute of Architects, the director of Philadelphia’;s Museum of Art, which Abele designed in a Greek-inspired style, called him “one of the most sensitive designers anywhere in America.”
Unbeknownst to even the university’;s administrators, Julian F. Abele’;s great-grandniece was a sophomore at the college in Durham, North Carolina. Knowing full well that her relative had designed the institution’;s neo-Gothic west campus and unified its Gothic east campus, Susan Cook wrote into the student newspaper contending that Abele would have supported the divestment rally in front of his beautiful chapel. Her great grand-uncle, who in addition to the chapel designed Duke’;s library, football stadium, gym, medical school, religion school, hospital, and faculty houses, “was a victim of apartheid in this country” yet the university itself was an example “of what a black man can create given the opportunity,” she wrote. Cook asserted that Abele had created their splendid campus, but had never set foot on it due to the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South.
This was the first time that Abele’;s role in designing Duke, a whites-only university until 1961, had been acknowledged so publicly. Most of the school’;s administrations were hearing about him for the very first time. Susan Cook’;s declaration, that Abele had never even seen his masterwork up close, was devastating. (Accounts about this differ, however. In 1989, Abele’;s closest friend from UPenn, the Hungarian Jewish architect Louis Magaziner, recalled being told by Abele that a Durham hotel room had refused him a room when he was visiting the university. A prominent local black businessman also remembered Abele coming to town).
Either way, the fact that by the 1980s most people had never even heard of the history-making architect, who designed an estimated 250 buildings while working at the well-known Trumbauer firm, including the Harvard University library and Philadelphia’;s Free Library, was even more shocking. Susan Cook’;s letter led to somewhat of an academic reckoning. Today, there’;s portrait of Abele hanging up at Duke, and the university is currently celebrating the 75th anniversary of the basketball arena he designed, the Cameron Indoor Stadium, which opened this week in 1940.
Raised in Philadelphia as the youngest of 8 children of a successful black family, Abele had excelled in school since early childhood, once winning $ 15 for his mathematical prowess. But Abele’;s years at UPenn—first as an undergraduate and then as the school’;s first black architecture student—took place in a climate that, while not as restrictive as the Jim Crow South, had its own set of social indignities: in addition to segregated seating in theaters and on transport, most campus gathering spots and sports teams were closed to blacks, and the dining hall and nearby restaurants would not serve blacks.
It was an isolating climate, and friendships could be hard to come by. “You spoke perfect English but no one spoke to you,” wrote a woman who graduated from UPenn nearly 2 decades after Abele did. Yet, during his senior year at the university, Abele was elected president of the school’;s Architectural Society, and he also won student awards for his designs for a post office and a botany museum. His professors evidently thought very highly of him: 5 years after Abele graduated, the head of the school’;s architecture program tried to lure him away from his employer for a job in California.
Abele’;s employer at that time, Horace Trumbauer, refused to let him go. He had become invaluable. Trumbauer had hired Abele in 1906 to be the assistant to the firm’;s chief designer, Frank Seeburger. When Seeburger departed in 1909, Abele ascended to his position. The young black architect worked well with Trumbauer, who did not have a formal education, having learned the craft of architecture through apprenticing and avid reading (which he was self-conscious about), and who built his firm by hiring very competent underlings.
Abele, a serious man who dressed in impeccable suits, spoke French fluently, and reveled in classical music, was just the technically gifted architect, proficient in Beaux Arts building styles, that Trumbauer needed for his team. “I, of course, would not want to lose Mr. Abele,” Trumbauer brusquely replied when he was asked, in 1907, to release Abele from his contract. Many accounts describe the firm’;s artistic vision as Abele’;s, with help from others in the practice, although dealing with clients and bringing in commissions fell to Trumbauer.
One such client was James Buchanan Duke, the tobacco billionaire who commissioned the Trumbauer firm to design vast residences in New York City and in Somerville, New Jersey for his family (and their 14 servants). The white-marble mansion in Manhattan was modeled on a 17th-century French château, and when it was completed in 1912, the Times labeled it the “costliest home” on Fifth Avenue. By 1924, the Trumbauer firm was hired to transform and expand an existing college in Durham, North Carolina into a well-endowed university named after its patron.
Abele would spend the next 2 decades creating a magisterial campus for a university that he was not even allowed to attend. All his creations were done under the name of the firm. “The lines are all Mr. Trumbauer’;s,” Abele once said. “But the shadows are all mine.” But after his boss died of cirrhosis in 1938, the talented architect signed his name to one of his own designs for the very first time. It was for Duke’;s chapel, the same structure that played a part in reviving his reputation 47 years later.
· Out of the Shadows [Smithsonian]
· Julian Francis Abele [University of Pennsylvania]
· All Curbed Features [Curbed National]