Julian Abele: Emerging from the Shadows
By Evan Kotler
History 317-01: Museum and Archives Management Basics
Pioneering African American architect Julian Francis Abele (pronounced “able”) has flown under the radar for quite some time for a number of reasons. He lived in a time when African Americans faced legal segregation and rampant racism. He worked for an architectural firm where no one signed their own names to plans. And he himself was known to be a very humble man. But he is only the third African American to receive a formal architectural degree in the United States. His body of work is prolific, and he is perhaps “the greatest American born Beaux-Arts architect.” We must pull Mr. Abele, who worked on our own Great Hall, from the shadows, and celebrate our connection to him.
Abele was born in April 1881, to parents Charles and Mary Abele in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was one of eleven children in his family. From an early age his parents prioritized education and religion, spending every Sunday at his grandfather’s Lombard Street Presbyterian Church and, like all of his eight siblings before him and the one surviving born after, he was enrolled in school. All of the children were expected to finish school and go on to be prominent members of their community, which many of them were able to accomplish.
The Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), where Abele enrolled at twelve years old, was a school for students grades 4 – 12, aged 11 – 18, and “open to any colored boy or girl.” While some sources state that the first school Abele attended was Brown Preparatory School, the author of the only complete biography of Abele, Dreck Spurlock Wilson, reveals in his book that it was unlikely, as Brown was an all-white school. At ICY, Abele was an exceptional student and was awarded a $15 prize as the senior with the highest mathematics score. It was also there that Abele was taught drawing by his aunt, Julia Jones, who would lead Abele into the field of architecture.
In 1897, after graduating from ICY, Abele would go on to study at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts. There he continued to excel, winning the Frederick Graff Jr. Prize as the best night student, complete with a $25 award. He was the first African American admitted to the School of Applied Art Architectural Drawing and, upon graduation in 1898, would become the first African American to receive the Certificate in Architectural Drawing.
From there, Abele would enroll at the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture where he would be taught the techniques of l’Ėcole des Beaux Arts (a famed school in Paris). If it were not for the financial support of his brother Bun, a doctor, Julian would not have been able to attend following the death of their father. Less than one percent of the school’s enrolled students were African American, at a school of 2,400 students. While segregation would not allow him to live on campus or dine in the eateries nearby, he would not let this deter him from him goal. From his sophomore year forward, Abele would earn the rare opportunity to apprentice with Louis Caron Hickman, past president of the Philadelphia T-Square Club (a fraternal organization for architects). This would lead to Abele becoming the first African American member of the club. While the apprenticeship with Hickman was not particularly grueling or very detailed work, it was Abele’s first introduction to professional life.
In Abele’s third year at the School of Architecture his career trajectory would skyrocket. He placed first in multiple school competitions and earned several awards. In 1901, for example, the first published entry in the Toronto Architectural Club “Exhibition Catalog” by an African American was by Abele (although it is unclear if organizers knew his race). Later in the same year, his proposed design of the Pretty Memorial Alumni Award was selected (although this victory might have been marred by the fact that Abele was not properly credited with his work. His name was incorrectly listed as, “John Abel”).
One of the crowning achievements of Abele’s remarkable junior year is also thought of as his first completed designed structure. What is known as the Edward B. Conklin Memorial Gate, at Haverford College, was the result of another first-place finish in a school competition. The concrete seating area and walkway, named for the class of '99 vice-president, was an advanced design for someone of so little experience. And while at the time people may have known Abele was the architect behind it, that fact was all but lost to history for decades. William Earle Williams, a professor at Haverford, perfectly described Abele’s anonymity as regards the Memorial Gate and his career generally, noting “It’s a metaphor for Julian Abele. He’s everywhere. We just don’t know that he exists.”
The final accomplishment of Abele’s junior year was the Arthur Spayd Brooke Memorial Prize, awarded to the junior who displayed the highest level of excellence. The award, along with the $50 prize it accompanied, validated Abele as an architect, regardless of race. His senior year was equally successful, with additional first-place competition finishes and election as President of the Architectural Society by his classmates. In 1902, checking off another first, Abele was the first black person to graduate from The University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. According to our class’s oral history interview with Dreck Spurlock Wilson (which you can read or listen to in full in another section of this libguide), this made Julian “the third African American, formally educated architect in the United States.” According to Wilson, “The first formally educated African American architect was Robert Taylor, who was an 1890 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And that has been documented and is not in dispute. Julian Abele, when he finished the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture, he was actually the third African American, formally educated architect in the United States, following behind Drexel University and Philadelphia's own William Sidney Pittman, who coincidentally happened to be the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington, famous principal of Tuskegee Institute.”
Abele’s education would not end there, however, as before graduation from Penn he sat for the entrance exam at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In the 96 years prior at the university, there had yet to be any racial diversity before Abele’s enrollment in the Architectural Drawing class. In 1903, Abele would earn his Certificate of Architectural Drawing and, with that, would become “the most formally educated architect in all of America.” The course would also be removed from the Academy only a few years after Abele received his certificate, making him the only person of color to earn the Certificate of Architectural Drawing from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
After receiving his certificate, there is debate as to what Abele did next. Some researchers say he studied at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, others that he only spent time in Paris. Biographer Wilson believes these assertions are both false, and that Abele was actually in Washington during the time some have thought him to have been in Paris, writing, “from 1903-1906, Julian resided closer to the Spokane River than l’Seine.” Wilson notes Julian traveled there to help his sister, who had separated from her husband. He would design his first house, in Spokane, Washington for that sister, Elizabeth, and then later return to Philadelphia with her and her children, taking them all in. Because of this time in Washington, Abele knew he needed to fast-track his career when he returned to Philadelphia in order to begin earning enough to care for the whole family.
In 1906, with the help of Warren Powers Laird, Director of the School of Architecture who admitted Abele to the University, his portfolio was presented to Horace Trumbauer (who you can read more about in another section of this libguide). Trumbauer, who owned an architectural firm but lacked formal education, was instantly impressed with Abele’s pedigree and designs, and would immediately hire him. For the next 44 years, Abele would be designing buildings at Trumbauer’s firm, working up to senior designer. It can be difficult to determine who should get “credit” for the buildings produced by the Trumbauer firm, as no one in the office signed plans. They all went out under the Trumbauer firm’s name. But according to Abele biographer Wilson, Julian undoubtedly deserves credit for hundreds of buildings, such as the majority of Duke University’s neo-Gothic west campus, and part of the Georgian style east, in North Carolina; the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard in Massachusetts; the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Philadelphia Free Library in Pennsylvania; James Buchanon Duke’s mansion in New York (which later became NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts); and what is now the Great Hall at Monmouth University in New Jersey, originally built as the residence of the Parson family (you can read more about the Great Hall in another section of this libguide). Up and down the east coast exists evidence of Abele’s genius to this day (and you can find a map of Abele’s work in another section of this libguide).
After Trumbauer's death in 1938, Abele and Trumbauer's architectural engineer, William Frank, continued operating under the name "Office of Horace Trumbauer." At this point Abele began signing his own name to his drawings and became one of the few black members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1942. Interestingly, when he applied, he did not take credit for any buildings during his years working for Trumbauer.
As far as Abele’s personal life goes: as noted earlier, Abele helped raise his sister’s children, and did not get married himself until he was 44, when his friend and fellow architect, Orpheus Fisher, introduced him to 20-year-old piano teacher Marguerite Bulle. Abele and Bulle fell in love and married in 1925. They would have three children, Julian Jr., Marguerite Marie (who passed away at age five due to measles) and Nadia. After nine years, Marguerite had an affair with another piano student and sought to leave the marriage. Julian, hurt and angry, would not grant her a divorce. Still, Bulle married Jozef Kowalewski and had three additional children with him. Julian would not remarry, and because he never divorced Marguerite, she and all her children, including those born after she left him, were entitled to split his estate after his death on April 18, 1950 from a fatal heart attack.
Pioneering African American architect Julian Francis Abele, born one of eleven children, overcame many obstacles in rising to the chief designer of the Office of Horace Trumbauer. Born an African American in the days of Jim Crow laws, losing his father at a young age, and adopting his sister’s family- Abele did not let anything deter him from his goals. Refusing to let unjust societal limitations and prejudices based on his race determine his future, he built a tremendous career and his legacy stands in stone for all to see to this day.
 Dreck Spurlock Wilson, Julian Abele: Architect and the Beaux Arts (Routledge, 2019), https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=URaGDwAAQBAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PT17, 18-25.
 Ibid, 30.
 Ibid, 36.
 Dreck Spurlock Wilson, African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 (Routledge, 2004), https://archive.org/stream/africanamericana0000unse_p3b4#page/2/mode/2up, 1.
 Ibid, 41-43.
 Ibid, 44-46.
 Ibid, 49-50.
 Ibid, 52.
 Kristen E Holmes, “Haverford Gate a Portal to Architect Abele's Legend,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 6, 2016, https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/20160206_Haverford_gate_a_portal_to_architect_Abele_s_legend.html.
 Wilson, Beaux Arts, 51-53.
 Wilson, Beaux Arts, 61.
 Ibid, 61.
 Ibid, 72.
 Susan E Tifft, “Out of the Shadows,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2005, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/out-of-the-shadows-85569503/.
 William E. King, ed., North Carolina Architects and Builders, ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu.