Julian F. Abele, Architect
Julian Francis Abele, the first African American graduate of the architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania, received scant recognition during his lifetime despite his many significant contributions. Although Fiske Kimball, a noted architectural historian and the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, acknowledged that Abele was "certainly one of the most sensitive designers anywhere in America" in 1942, the pioneering African American architect remained virtually unknown outside Philadelphia's architectural community until the 1970s and 1980s. Today we appreciate Abele as one of the early twentieth-century's most adept designers of revival buildings, who rejuvenated many long-dormant styles as vital, modern forms of architectural expression.
Born in Philadelphia in 1881, Abele lived most of his life in the city. He resided at 718 South Twenty-first Street and 1911 Fitzwater Street before moving to 1515 Christian Street, his home for several decades. As a boy, he attended the Institute for Colored Youth and Brown Preparatory School. An accomplished student, at his commencement from the Institute for Colored Youth he delivered a speech entitled "The Role of Art in Negro Life" and was awarded a $15 prize for being the best student in mathematics. In 1898, he attended the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, the progenitor of both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of the Arts. A student in the evening class at the school, Abele won the Graff Prize for Architectural Design at his commencement.
That same year, he enrolled in the prestigious architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania. Completing his B.S. degree in 1902, Abele was the first African American to graduate from the university's architecture program. Nicknamed "Willing and Able" during his college days, he excelled, winning several impressive awards and serving as the president of the university's Architectural Society during his senior year. His first executed designs, dating to 1901, included a commemorate tablet for the University of Pennsylvania and a memorial gateway for Haverford College.
After his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, Abele augmented his education, studying architectural design at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the 1902-1903 academic year. While still a student, Abele, who was listed in the Philadelphia city directory as an architect as early as 1901, worked in the evenings for the noted Philadelphia architect Louis C. Hickman. During the first years of the century, Abele displayed his architectural designs at major exhibitions including those at the T Square Club in Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh Architectural Club, the Toronto Architectural Club, and the Architectural League of New York. After leaving the Hickman architectural office in 1903, he traveled extensively. During this period, he designed a house in Spokane, Washington for his sister Elizabeth Rebecca Abele Cook, who had married John F. Cook, II in Washington, D.C. and then moved west. In 1904 and 1905, Abele listed his address as Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where Cook served as the Postmaster General.Student drawings from this period:
During the middle of the decade, Abele traveled to Europe, where he experienced firsthand the architecture of eighteenth-century France, which he would favor throughout his career. Many report that Abele studied architecture while in Paris during this period. For example, Helena Fenessey, the stepdaughter of Horace Trumbauer, the architect for whom Abele worked for more than three decades, recounted that her stepfather sent Abele, the "brilliant young architectural student … to study at the Sorbonne in Europe." On the other hand, Abele's family members report that Trumbauer funded Abele's study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the most renowned architecture school in the world at the time. Contradicting these reports, researchers have discovered no evidence of Abele's matriculation in any formal program in Paris. It is possible, though, given the structure of the Ecole, that he informally attended one of the many ateliers associated with the prestigious institution.
After three years of travel and discovery, Abele returned to Philadelphia, where, excepting short trips to Europe and elsewhere, he would remain until his death in 1950. In 1906, Horace Trumbauer recruited the accomplished young architect to work at his prestigious Philadelphia architectural firm, which was known for its elegant homes for America's elite. In the mid 1880s, at 16 years of age, Trumbauer entered the architecture profession as an apprentice at G. W. and W. D. Hewitt's firm in Philadelphia. In 1890, he set out on his own. Soon afterward, he landed his first significant commission, "Grey Towers" (now Arcadia College), a castle-like mansion in Glenside, Pennsylvania for sugar baron William Welsh Harrison. Within a few years, Trumbauer's firm was flourishing. Until the stock market crashed in 1929, Trumbauer enjoyed what his stepdaughter called "the big money years." In the late winter of 1906, when Abele entered Trumbauer's organization, the firm was booming, designing not only mansions for the rich in Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island, but also apartment houses and other large structures. Over the next decades, Trumbauer and his staff would add office and school buildings, theaters, hospitals, clubhouses, churches, libraries, museums, and other building types to their ever-expanding repertoire.
Within a year of joining Trumbauer in 1906, Abele, who served as chief designer Frank Seeburger's assistant, had proved himself a valued member of the firm. In 1907, when Warren Powers Laird, the head of the architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania, asked if Trumbauer would release Abele from his contract to take a job in California, the architect curtly replied: "I, of course,would not want to lose Mr. Abele." In 1909, Seeburger, Trumbauer's chief designer, left the firm, first to practice on his own and then to form a longstanding partnership with architect Charles Rabenold. Following Seeburger's departure, Abele, who was remembered by friends as "slight, always immaculately dressed, with a well trimmed mustache," ascended to the firm's top position, chief designer, a remarkable accomplishment in light of his age and race.
In his private life, Abele was a quiet, serious man. Friends and family reported that he was a "firm Republican" and was religious but did not go to church. He married Marguerite Bulle, a French woman, and had two children, a son Julian Jr. and daughter Nadia. After several years, the marriage dissolved and the couple parted, but they never divorced. From his youth, Abele appreciated all things French and, as an adult, became a connoisseur of wine. He also enjoyed classical music and opera and frequented the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. A sports fan, he held season tickets to the University of Pennsylvania football games, which he attended with Louis Magaziner and his son Henry. He dressed smartly and, as a friend noted, even while on vacation at the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey "always wore his suit to the boardwalk. He always looked very debonair." At home, he practiced many arts and crafts including watercolor painting, lithography, etching, sketching, and jewelry and furniture making. A dedicated Francophile, he decorated his home at 1515 Christian Street in an elegant French style.
During the three decades from 1909 to 1938, while serving as Trumbauer's chief designer, Abele honed his sophisticated style on the designs for dozens of important residential, civic, and commercial landmarks including the Central library building of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Noting his importance to the firm, Trumbauer's stepdaughter remembered that Abele "became invaluable in consultation" with her father. Fiske Kimball, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was designed by Trumbauer's firm in collaboration with Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, appreciated Abele as Trumbauer's "right-hand man and designer." Collaborating closely with his employer, the "brilliant and witty" Abele once stated that the "lines are all Mr. Trumbauer's, but the shadows are all mine." Although, as Valentine Burkhart Lee, an architect on the Trumbauer staff, reported, Abele's "race was never discussed or thought about in the firm," the talented designer did in fact remain in the shadows outside the firm. Beyond the walls of the Trumbauer office, the gifted African American architect was little known due to his race. One must wonder why he was not elected to the American Institute of Architects until 1942, even though he had been an acclaimed designer for nearly four decades. After Trumbauer's death in 1938, Abele signed his own designs for the first time in his professional life, but never received the credit he deserved for his numerous noteworthy projects. At his death in 1950, few knew that architect Julian F. Abele had forever changed Philadelphia's skyline and, more generally, American architecture.