Out of the Shadows

After decades of obscurity, African-American architect Julian Abele is finally getting recognition for his contributions to some of 20th-century America's most prestigious buildings

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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.


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