Julian Abele (1881-1950)

Julian AbeleThe original architectural drawings for the proposed campuses of Duke University are true works of art, grand in scale and exquisite in detail. As was common they are unsigned with the only credit being in the name of the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer, Architect. The chief designer of the firm and draftsman, Julian F. Abele, in discussing the unique style of the drawings, once proudly proclaimed, "The shadows are all mine." With that statement Abele unknowingly articulated a central fact of his life. As an African American, he lived in the shadows as time and circumstance conspired to conceal his considerable professional talent.

At Duke, students discovered Julian Abele in April 1986. That spring students protesting for Duke's divestment in South Africa built a shanty town in the main quad. A letter writer to the Chronicle complained that the ugliness of the crude shelters "violates our rights as students to a beautiful campus." In response, Susan Cook, declared that since the architect of the campus was an African American, he would not have objected to the shanty protest because he was a victim of apartheid in his own country and indeed he had not even traveled to view the campus he designed because of his revulsion of segregation then so prevalent in the South1. Cook, a graduating senior, had a special interest in the issue. She also revealed that she was the great grandniece of Julian Abele. Her letter caused considerable discussion on campus. The following Spring Duke's Black Graduate and Professional Student Association initiated the annual Julian Abele Awards and Recognition Banquet, unveiling as part of the program, a commissioned portrait of Abele. President Brodie assisted with fund raising and agreed to the hanging of the portrait, the first of a black at Duke, in the foyer of Allen Building.

The student reaction in 1986-87 was in fact a "rediscovery" of Abele. His role had always been known by administrators and careful observers of the university's history. During the design and construction of the institution, Duke administrators constantly visited the office of the architectural firm in Philadelphia. When Professor William Blackburn published a book on the architecture of the university in 1939, he acknowledged that Vice President Robert Lee Flowers arranged for him to interview Abele in his research. One of Julian F. Abele Jr.'s proud possessions is an inscribed presentation copy of Blackburn's book given to his father whose assistance is acknowledged in the preface.

After the death of the founder of the firm, Horace Trumbauer, in 1938, the firm continued for another twenty years but still under the original name. With commissions more difficult to come by during the Great Depression and World War II, it was not a propitious time to change the name of the firm. However, Abele's name began appearing on the architectural drawings in an obvious change of policy. In 1940 when decisions were being made concerning burial in the chapel crypt, A. S. Brower, then assistant to the Comptroller, advised that Abele be consulted because he "prepared the plans and knows the details of the building better than anyone else." Abele's role became more commonly known in 1974 when Alice Phillips published a memoir, "Spire and Spirit," which tells of her experiences as a longtime hostess in the chapel. Her brief chapter, "Le Noir" tells of her having met Abele's secretary and son on their visits to the chapel.

That the contact between Philadelphia and Durham was one way for Julian Abele is hard to comprehend today but more understandable when one delves into the circumstances. Trumbauer was heard to say "I hire my brains." In truth Abele was too valuable to have away from the firm.

Although acknowledged as a premier builder of gilded age palaces, often in the grand French style, for the wealthy in Philadelphia, Newport and New York City, Horace Trumbauer incredibly had no formal education having dropped out of school at age sixteen. He learned the profession as an apprentice draftsman and through voracious reading. When he began his own firm in 1890, he hired exceptionally qualified personnel, held them to very high standards, and paid them handsomely if they could work together. Extremely self conscious about his lack of education, he deliberately sought anonymity preferring to work one-on-one with his wealthy clients relying on their recommendations for commissions.

Trumbauer instantly recognized the talent of Julian Abele when he observed some of Abele's student award winning drawings. Upon Abele's graduation in 1902 as the first black student in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Trumbauer financed further study for him at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris. Abele joined Trumbauer's firm in 1906, advancing to chief designer in 1909.

Because of his talent and aloofness, Trumbauer gained accolades in New York City before he did in his hometown. His colleagues in Philadelphia did not elect him to membership in their chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) until 1931, an affront that reportedly greatly disturbed him. Added to this mix was the fact that he employed, advanced and befriended one of the very few African American architects in the country. Trumbauer and Abele each faced discrimination and because of that Trumbauer empathized with the racial discrimination confronting Abele. Consequently they forged a close relationship based on respect for talent and friendship, but each also trapped the other in a peculiar set of circumstances. Trumbauer excelled as the front man dealing with major clients but he avoided publicity and public appearances. Abele was the African American chief designer essential to the internal operation of the firm, a position too confining for his deserved reputation. Abele, himself, was not elected to membership in the Philadelphia AIA until 1941.

Along with many houses for the Elkins and Widener families as well as for the Kimballs, Belmonts, Drexels, and Stotesburys, the Trumbauer firm designed the residences of James B. Duke in New York City and Somerville, NJ. Presumably that is why the firm received the commission to design the new university bearing the Duke name. Unfortunately the partners who carried on after Abele's death in 1950 destroyed the firm's records. Sadly, a lack of records further contributes to the shadow which engulfs the life of Julian F. Abele and obscures the role of the architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer.

1. Recent research by Duke faculty member Susan E. Tifft casts doubt on the assumption that Abele never saw the Duke campus. In her article about Abele,"Out of the Shadows" (Smithsonian magazine, February 2005), she writes that several people who knew the architect say he did indeed visit here. For the full article see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/shadow.html.

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