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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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.”


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