Julian Abele, an architectural pioneer

Julian Abele
Fri, 1881-04-29

*Julian Abele was born on this date in 1881. He was an African American architect.

From South Philadelphia, Julian Francis Abele was the son of Charles R. and Mary A. Abele. He was educated at the Institute for Colored Youth before entering the University of Pennsylvania in 1898. He was the first African-American to graduate from the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts and Architecture in 1902. That year he was asked by Horace Trumbauer to join his firm, which had been exclusively white up to that point. Trumbauer sent Abele to Paris to study at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts.

By 1908, Abele was the chief designer in the firm of Horace Trumbauer & Associates and owns a list of buildings that is impressive. In addition to Widener Library, he designed Philadelphia’s Free Library and Museum of Art, the chapel and many other buildings of Trinity College in Durham, N.C. (which was later renamed Duke University) and the James B. Duke mansion on Fifth Avenue and 78th Street in New York City (now NYU’s Graduate Institute of Fine Arts). Abele's role in the firm of Horace Trumbauer was neither a well-kept secret nor a well-publicized fact.

His talent was such that it made him chief designer at age 27, and paid him a salary of $12,000 per year in 1912 (which is over $250,000 in current dollars). Abele did not join the American Institute of Architects, however, until 1942; four years after the death of Trumbauer, at which time Abele became head of the firm. Abele never personally visited Duke University during any phase of construction or afterwards due to segregation. Yet, the archivist of Duke University in a letter to the editor of the Raleigh, NC News and Observer states it was well known by university personnel that the chief designer of the firm was African-American.

The histories of Widener Library to date only mention the firm of Horace Trumbauer and never make mention of Abele himself. It was Mrs. Widener’s choice of this Philadelphia firm to design the library that would bear the name of her son, and it is unclear whether she knew Abele or just Trumbauer. In any case, his work stands and society and scholarship are catching up in order to give him the proper credit he deserves. Julian Abele died on April 23, 1950, after designing the Allen Administration Building at Duke University. He is considered the first major African-American architect in the United States.

Philadelphia Architects and Buildings

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Abele, Julian