Julian Abele: Architect and Designer

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To celebrate Black History Month, we are featuring the stories of African-heritage and African Americans who are an integral part of our story and our communities’ stories—along with resources so you can discover more!

The Gilded Age has left its mark on the American popular imagination—and one of the largest legacies of the Gilded Age are the buildings designed during the era. One man responsible for many of these buildings was Julian Abele (1881-1950), a chief architect for the firm of Horace Trumbauer.

Abele was born in Philadelphia and graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1902. He was one of the first African American professional architects, at a time when the field of architecture was being shaped into the profession it is today.

He began working for the Horace Trumbauer firm in 1906—advancing to become chief architect in 1909 and assuming leadership of the firm after Trumbauer’s death in 1938.

Abele was arguably the creative force behind the majority of Trumbauer projects in this period, including many for the Duke family (as Abele said, “The lines are all Mr. Trumbauer’s, but the shadows are all mine”). While he did not have a direct hand in the renovation of Rough Point in the early-1920s, (our understanding is that this type of project would not have been undertaken by Abele and it would have been the responsibility of a separate renovation department), you can see the evidence of his influence on the design of the grand staircase at Rough Point—which closely resembles the one designed by Abele for Ronaele Manor (Dixon home in Elkins, PA) in 1923.

His accomplishments and his prolific body of work are even more impressive considering he also contended with discrimination and racism.  He was not admitted as a member of the American Institute of Architects until 1942—40 years after his professional career began. He designed buildings for Duke University for two decades, but rarely visited—and was not able to oversee the work—because of segregation Jim Crow laws.

Today, you can visit Abele’s work across the eastern United States—including the former Duke residence at East 78th Street and 5th Avenue (1909), Harvard’s Widener Memorial Library (1915), the Philadelphia Free Library (1917), and several Duke University campus buildings.

To learn more about Abele’s life and lasting legacy, check out Dreck Spurlock Wilson’s Julian Abele, Architect and the Beaux Arts, published in 2019.

Image credits:
1) Julian Abele, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
2) Stair Hall, from The Collection of Heraldic Stained Glass at Ronaele Manor, 1927. From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
3) Announcement of Duke residence, from the New York Times, 1914.