Julian Francis Abele Biography
Became First Black Graduate, Designed Harvard Yard Landmark, Portrait Hangs at Duke
Julian Abele was the first African-American architect to attain professional acclaim. He enjoyed a long and illustrious career at a prominent Philadelphia firm, and many of the buildings that bear his design stamp have endured to become American landmarks. They include many of the buildings on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, originally a private residence and one of Manhattan's grandest addresses in its day.
Born in 1881 in Philadelphia, Abele (pronounced "able") was the youngest of eight children in his family. He was born in a city that was already home to generations of free blacks, thanks in part to Philadel-phia's famously tolerant founders, who were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. There were many Quaker-run schools for African-American students, while more established black families owned businesses and were leaders in their community. On his mother's side, Abele was related to Absalom Jones, who co-founded the Free African Society in 1787.
Became First Black Graduate
Abele attended the Quaker-run Institute for Colored Youth, where he excelled in math and was chosen to deliver the commencement address. He completed a two-year architectural drawing course at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, and then entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. Again, he was one of the top students in his class, and was nicknamed "Willing and Able" for the dedication he showed to his chosen field. His classmates also bestowed on him the academic year's highest honor: president of the student architectural society. It is known that Abele was the School of Architecture's first black graduate, but it seems unclear whether or not all of his classmates knew his ethnicity. He was light-skinned and sometimes mistaken for a Spaniard.
Abele graduated in 1902 and is thought to have gone out West for a time, perhaps to Idaho where one of his sisters had recently moved. Back in Philadelphia, he found a job with one of the city's best-known firms, Horace Trumbauer & Associates, thanks to a recommendation from the dean of the School of Architecture. His new boss, Trumbauer, had no formal training as an architect, but the firm, founded in 1890, had already landed some notable commissions. The fashion at the time was for grandiose homes that conveyed the wealth and social status of the owner, and oftentimes these were based on European palaces. When Abele began working there, Trumbauer had already completed Lynnewood Hall, a palatial 110-room estate for streetcar baron Peter A.B. Widener and located just outside Philadelphia. Trumbauer sent Abele to Paris to study at the École des Beaux Arts, one of the most prestigious art schools Paris, until 1906. The École was the leading proponent of the new Beaux Arts architectural style that had become immensely popular in the United States during the period roughly from 1885 to 1920. Beaux Arts buildings drew heavily from the architecture of Roman antiquity as well as later Italian Renaissance and Baroque styles.
Abele began at Trumbauer in 1906 as an as assistant to the firm's chief designer. There is some evidence to show that Trumbauer was criticized for hiring Abele, especially after the chief designer left to establish his own firm and Abele took over the job, which put white employees in a subordinate position to him. Abele refused to become involved in the question of race, and his professional policy was to simply immerse himself in his work. The results spoke for themselves. Around the same time of this promotion, in 1909, he began what would become his most illustrious residential project, a New York City home at Fifth Avenue and 78th Street for James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company. Modeled after a French chateau from the 1600s, the Duke residence was thought to be most expensive home on Fifth Avenue, in an age when lavish excess became commonplace among New York's moneyed class.
Designed Harvard Yard Landmark
Abele also designed the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University. The famous Harvard institution was named after Peter A.B. Widener's son, Harry Elkins Widener, who perished in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Records remain somewhat unclear over just how much a role Abele played in the Trumbauer firm's commissions during these years, for architects employed at such firms usually signed drawings with name of the firm, not their own. "The question of who did what at the Trumbauer firm," wrote Susan E. Tifft in the Smithsonian, "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." Some note that Abele was a talented architect, but so was Trumbauer; others point to buildings that Trumbauer did prior to hiring Abele that "were obese, monstrously heavy" structures, asserted architectural historian Dreck Wilson to Tifft in the Smithsonian article. "When you look at Abele's buildings, they float, they're lighter," Wilson explained.
Abele's connections to the Duke family continued through his work for Duke University. In the 1920s, James Duke was approached by a small North Carolina college with an offer to turn it into a namesake university—a family legacy that had proved an irresistibly prestigious lure for previous barons of the Gilded Age, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and his eponymous institution in Nashville, Tennessee. Duke hired the Trumbauer firm to add new buildings for the existing campus, which became known as Duke's eastern campus, and to build an entirely new west campus from the ground up. The buildings included a library, football stadium and gymnasium, medical school and hospital, school of religion, and houses for faculty.
Abele also played a prominent role in the Museum of Art in Philadelphia and its adjacent Philadelphia Free Library, which date back to 1927. His inspiration for the dual buildings seemed to have been two landmarks situated on Paris's Place de la Concorde, the Ministére de la Marine and Hôtel de Crillon. The stairs leading to the Museum of Art entrance were immortalized in the 1976 film Rocky, when the title character takes an early-morning run through the city and scales the steps triumphantly. Abele's other works include Whitemarsh Hall, an immense Pennsylvania mansion designed for banker Edward T. Stotesbury, and the New York Evening Post Building, completed in 1925. Nearly a century later, this 75 West Street address still stands as a luxury condominium building.
Abele was a bachelor until 1925, when he wed a French woman, Marguerite Bulle, who was a noted soprano. The had three children, but one of their two daughters died from a bout with measles at the age of five. The marriage foundered, and Bulle began an affair; Abele refused to divorce her, and when she became pregnant by the other man, she wed him in a bigamous 1936 ceremony. Abele, however, retained custody of he and Bulle's two remaining children, Julien Jr. and Nadia.
Portrait Hangs at Duke
Abele and his colleague, architectural engineer William Frank, maintained the Trumbauer firm's business after the death of Horace Trumbauer in 1938. After this point, Abele began signing some of his architectural drawings with his own name, such as the one for Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke, the home court of its Blue Devils basketball team. His name is also linked decisively to Duke's Allen Administration Building, in which his portrait hangs. It is the first one of an African American ever hung at Duke. One mythical story surrounding Abele's achievements asserts that though he was the architect of much of Duke University, he never set foot on campus, which was restricted to whites only until 1961. An anecdote told by a friend recounts that he did visit it, but was refused a hotel room in Durham on the trip.
Abele was largely forgotten after his death in 1950, but he was honored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982, and again in 2002 upon the Free Library's 75th anniversary. Three of his descendants, however, entered the profession, and became part of the 1.5 percent of licensed architectural professionals who are also African American. One of those three is Peter Cook, a Washington, D.C.-based architect, who recalled visiting the Duke campus in the late 1970s and seeing the famous chapel, modeled after England's Canterbury Cathedral. "Suddenly out of this deep green forest appeared this iconic image of Duke," Cook told Tifft in the Smithsonian article. "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."
New York Times, January 23, 1994.
Smithsonian, February 2005, p. 100.
"Focus on Julian Abele (1881–1950)," Philadelphia Museum of Art, www.philamuseum.org/information/history/abele.shtml (September 21, 2005).