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The Julian Abele Project: Interview with Abele Biographer Dreck Spurlock Wilson

On November 24, 2020, Kelly Dender (a student in Monmouth University's fall 2020 Museums and Archives class) interviewed Mr. Dreck Spurlock Wilson, the author of a relatively new biography on Julian Abelefor our project. We are pleased to make that available for you. Scroll down for the transcript, and click here for the video. This interview was being recorded with the permission of all participants: Kelly, Mr. Wilson, and Professor Melissa Ziobro.

Interview Transcript:

Kelly Dender:

My name is Kelly Dender and I am a student in Monmouth University's fall 2020 Museum and Archives class. Today is Tuesday, November 24, 2020. We're here today with Mr. Dreck Spurlock Wilson, he is a graduate of Iowa State University and the University of Chicago. He was an associate professor of architectural history at Howard University and lecturer in landscape architecture at Morgan State University, and a licensed landscape architect. He is the editor and contributing author of the Biographical Dictionary of African American Architects published by Taylor and Francis, and the author of a relatively new biography on Julian Abele. He has agreed to be interviewed for our class's digital project on Mr. Abele, architect of Monmouth University's Great Hall. This interview is being recorded with the permission of all participants: myself, Mr. Wilson, and Professor Melissa Ziobro.

Kelly Dender:

All right, thank you so much for being with us today, Mr. Wilson.

Mr. Wilson:

You're welcome.

Kelly Dender:

According to your book, Julian Abele grew up in a family that valued education and culture. How did his upbringing influence him?

Mr. Wilson:

The family that Julian Abele grew up in was actually a large family, he had 11 brothers and sisters. And his older brothers were very prominent African Americans in late 19th and early 20th century Philadelphia. His oldest brother, Robert, was one of the first African Americans to obtain a medical degree from Hahnemann College in Philadelphia, back in the early 1890s. Which was quite an outstanding feat. And as his older brother, Robert’s, career went forward as a medical doctor, that was how Julian Abele was able to pay his tuition, first, to the School of Industrial Art at the Philadelphia Museum, and then the University of Pennsylvania. And finally, at the Academy of Fine Arts, which was very important back then. Not only was the tuition relatively expensive, but it also meant that he would not have to work his way through school, as particularly many minorities would have to do back in those days.

Mr. Wilson:

The family are collateral relatives of one of the most famous and important African Americans in Philadelphia history, Absalom Jones, who was the first African American to become an Episcopal priest in the United States. As well as being one of the first leaders in terms of mutual aid societies having founded, along with the founder of the AME church, Richard Allen, the African society. And so with that type of pedigree, Julian Abele certainly felt that his horizons were unlimited.

Kelly Dender:

So his older brother helped him to get into these schools by helping him with his tuition?

Mr. Wilson:

That's correct.

Kelly Dender:

That's great.

Kelly Dender:

Okay, some sources call Abele the first formally educated African American architect, but you write in your book that this is not true. You do write that he is at one point the most formally trained. Can you discuss that a little bit?

Mr. Wilson:

Certainly. Oftentimes, when there are prominent African Americans, there are deeds attributed to them that actually exceed what they happened to achieve. And Abele's situation was a little bit of the reverse. 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.

Kelly Dender:

Wow, okay. Small world, so many connections.

Kelly Dender:

Several sources claim that Julian had studied in Europe, but your research shows that this is inaccurate, is that true?

Mr. Wilson:

Yes. My research was fairly extensive on that issue. One of the... And I don't necessarily fault the biographers of Horace Trumbauer for writing that they felt that Abele had been trained in Paris, at the École des Beaux-Arts. His own family, his son and daughter, who I had the privilege of conducting interviews with, believed that their father had studied in Paris. But I was able to commission a researcher at the École des Beaux-Arts to look through all of the documented files, and admission files, not only at the Ecole, but there were several other institutes of architecture in Paris. And there were no documents that suggested in any way that Julian Abele had ever studied there.

Mr. Wilson:

Of course, it was back in the... What would have been the 1890s and earlier, first decade of the 20th century. Many architects actually studied in a tutor situation where they would be tutored by a practicing professional architect in Paris or in France. And even then, there is still no mention of Julian Abele. Probably the capstone of Julian Abele not having studied in Paris, is the fact that if he had, he would have been the first and only African American to have studied architecture in the, what is known as the city of lights. And that surely would have been something that would have been newsworthy, and it would have showed up in newspapers or in the school yearbooks, et cetera, et cetera. And there is absolutely no documentation to suggest that.

Kelly Dender:

Right. So there would be more public record that he had been there had it occurred.

Mr. Wilson:

Correct.

Kelly Dender:

And his children believe that he was, that's interesting…As far as firsts go, you say that Abele was the first black architect to work in a white owned office. It seems that you think Horace Trumbauer wasn't trying to make a statement so much as he was just trying to make some money. Because he knew that Julian Abele was so good at what he did. Is that right?

Mr. Wilson:

Yes. Yes, that's a correct conclusion. Trumbauer was what we described, or what I describe, as a businessman architect. That is, he was most interested in the bottom line and making a profit, he was by far and away the rainmaker for the office. He brought in the clients. What- Trumbauer compensated for his lack of an architecture pedigree by recruiting the most talented graduates of the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. There were three or four Penn graduates that preceded Julian Abele into the office of Horace Trumbauer. And so Abele was the fourth in a long line of superiorly talented graduates of the University of Pennsylvania that Trumbauer hired.

Kelly Dender:

So Trumbauer was basically handpicking the best of the best that came from -

Mr. Wilson:

Exactly.

Kelly Dender:

Okay.

Mr. Wilson:

Trumbauer had a friendly relationship with the Director of the School of Architecture, who was Warren Laird, and Laird by virtue of having admitted Julian to the School of Architecture, was Julian's mentor. It was almost a lock, that when Julian Abele, distinguished himself as a gold medal winner at the university, that Professor Laird was going to deliver him into the hands of Horace Trumbauer.

Kelly Dender:

So he guaranteed himself a job.

Mr. Wilson:

Exactly.

Kelly Dender:

Okay. That's great. You note that it was rare for Abele to visit his sites, was it common for other architects at the time to do so?

Mr. Wilson:

Yes, it was. Some of the leading architects of Abele's period in Philadelphia, Clarence Zantzinger of Zantzinger, Borie and Medary who were joint venture partners on the design of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or in Manhattan, Stanford White who was with the firm there-  when they had important commissions they would regularly visit the construction site. Because if you think about it, back in the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, communication wasn't that solid. And so if there were problems, or maybe there had to be changes to the construction because of unforeseen circumstances, the best way and almost the only way to deal with it or to resolve it was to go to the site…[the] reason that Abele did not go to the site had to do with race. Construction sites one, were very unsafe, they didn't have the same types of safety protocols that we have now. And almost all of the laborers at construction sites were mostly European immigrants. And they were in various trade unions, and the trade unions were very discriminatory. They didn't have any African American union members. And so any non-white that might show up on a construction site was really in jeopardy. And Julian Abele, his personality was very quiet and unassuming, and he never wanted to be the instigator of anything that was unpleasant. And so he simply did not go to the construction site. What he did, or what Trumbauer did to mitigate that circumstance, is that... Trumbauer would send a junior architect to go to the construction site, review what the problems were, and then come back and report to Julian Abele and say, "This is what's happening. These are the problems, what can be done about it?" And then Julian would communicate... Drawings had to be prepared, detailed drawings, they would do that. But that's how they handled that issue, or that situation.

Kelly Dender:

So Abele had preferred to stay in the shadows, type deal when it came to going to the site. So we touched a little on Horace Trumbauer, you called him non-degreed, non-designing. I think that would probably surprise a lot of people because he, unlike those who worked for him, had such an outsized legacy. Can you tell us a little more about him?

Mr. Wilson:

Well, yes. The Trumbauer who... As a practicing landscape architect, I have over the years certainly worked with a lot of architects. And I have the utmost respect for Trumbauer because, as I say contemporarily, he stayed in his lane. He knew how to bring the jobs and he didn't know how to design so he hired somebody that could do the designing. It is proper and appropriate that every building that came out of the office of Horace Trumbauer, the credit for that building belongs to Trumbauer. That attribution is his, and Julian Abele would be the first one to agree with me. But when it comes to who actually put pen to vellum, then that was Julian Abele. And Trumbauer, as far as I could determine, didn't even know how to draft a blueprint.

Mr. Wilson:

One … analogy to Trumbauer situation is the great Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, who is credited, or he is attributed with some magnificent Chicago skyscrapers and Union Station here in Washington, DC. Burnham was exactly in the same mold as Trumbauer. Was a non-designing architect. Burnham never produced a drawing. But Burnham, he had in his office, senior designers that were great designers. And his office, the organization of Burnham's office in Chicago, and the organization of Trumbauer's office in Philadelphia, were identical.

Kelly Dender:

Okay, so, Trumbauer and Burnham basically stood in as almost figureheads of the company and collected the best of their ability in order to produce such magnificent architectural pieces and significant landmarks.

Mr. Wilson:

Yes.

Kelly Dender:

Wow, okay. All right. So plans coming out of Trumbauer's office often weren't signed, so it can be difficult to determine what buildings were Abele's. There's come some disagreement across different sources about how many Abele buildings there are out there. Complicating this, when Abele applied to the American Institute of Architects in 1942, he didn't claim any buildings from his Trumbauer years. You credit him with over 200 buildings- how did you arrive at your list? Does Abele have a calling card or something that you look for that tells you it's his work, versus … someone else?

Mr. Wilson:

I have visited all of the buildings that Julian Abele designed. Including what I refer to as Shadow Lawn there on your campus [also for a time known as] Wilson Hall [now called The Great Hall]. The calling card, as you put it, was Abele's ability to detail stonework in such a way that he gave the building the appearance that it was much lighter in weight than the limestone would suggest. Because these were massive limestone buildings… And typically those massive buildings, they appear obese. But if you look at Wilson Hall, or Shadow Lawn, it is very delicately appearing. It has very fine details. It does not look very heavy. And so that's the true calling card for Abele. One of the comparisons is Stanford White, who worked in New York. And some of his limestone buildings are very heavy, very obese. Yet Stanford White was a very good architect. The other calling card for Abele is that he only designed limestone buildings, or what I refer to as cut stone buildings. If the building is masonry or brick, although it came from the Office of Horace Trumbauer, it was not designed by Julian Abele.

Kelly Dender:

Okay. So he had an affinity for limestone. That was his expertise, so to speak.

Mr. Wilson:

Right.

Kelly Dender:

Okay. You write that Julian had a brother who passed as white. But Julian generally chose not to. You also note that he was not a “race crusader,” in your words, and he was, "Disinclined to embrace his race." In another passage you write that Abele's racial denial approach delusion. That sounds a little complicated, can you elaborate a little?

Mr. Wilson:

Yes. And certainly it is complicated. Ethnically, Julian Abele was African American. However, he considered himself an artist, that he went beyond imitating that he was a white person. Which, a small percentage of I'll say successful, fair skinned African Americans sometimes tried to cross over, at least in public, pretend that they were white. Even Julian's second oldest brother, Joseph, was an electrical engineer with the Philadelphia Electrical Company in decades when there would not have been any professional African Americans in that capacity. And he was able to maintain his position, which he'd maintained for decades, because he passed for white. Now when Joseph came back home or came back to his family, he was African American again. But at work he passed for white. With Julian Abele he was not trying to pass for white. He really considered himself, "other." Meaning he really didn't classify himself by race. What he considered himself was, that he was an architect. And that's the way he basically lived his life and the way he wanted to be perceived.

Kelly Dender:

So he chose to classify himself by his career, not what he looks like.

Mr. Wilson:

Exactly.

Kelly Dender:

All right. So we did touch a little bit on The Great Hall at Monmouth University, previously known as Wilson Hall and Shadow Lawn. You said that Julian Abele, his detail to stonework is how we can tell that that's his building and the delicacy of the limestone. Do you know if he ever visited The Great Hall? There's a photo in your book, of a picture of him at the Jersey Shore?

Mr. Wilson:

Yes. At the Jersey Shore, actually in Cape May; during the summers, Julian, his wife and children rented a cottage there. Where the children and his wife stayed all summer, and Julian would commute from Philadelphia on the weekends. If I was a betting man, I would say no, he never visited Shadow Lawn as he would have not visited any of the other significant mansions that he designed.

Kelly Dender:

So even though he created these gorgeous works and mansions, he still didn't go to see the finished product? Even if he didn't visit the construction site?

Mr. Wilson:

No, he did not. And it's really... Speaking as a designer, I think that was such a shame that he felt so limited and confined that he did not go see his work. The greatest misfortune is that Julian Abele designed 32 buildings for the new campus of Duke University and he never ever stepped foot on campus to see those buildings. I don't know if you've ever been to Duke University or seen pictures of it, but the buildings are beautiful.

Kelly Dender:

Yeah…

Mr. Wilson:

The campus is beautiful. And for an architect to not see that work, to me is very distressing.

Kelly Dender:

Yeah, I agree. I think it's a shame that he felt almost excluded from being able to see his works three dimensional, after he drew them out.

Kelly Dender:

So it seems that you are aware that our building was renamed. Do you have any thoughts on it? At Monmouth, the building at Monmouth?

Mr. Wilson:

Well, yes I have some thoughts. And I am the DC advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And the trust owns a number of historic properties, and one of those properties is the Woodrow Wilson House here in Washington DC. And I have been advocating very strongly that the trust disinvest themselves of that ownership of that house because of the racism of Woodrow Wilson. So my opinion about the renaming of your building is, well, yes. And if you would like I would come and testify to that.

Kelly Dender:

You think maybe it should have been named after Abele instead?

Mr. Wilson:

No, I don't really think that. It's an interesting question that you've raised, and I've had some very heated discussions with officials at Duke University on that very issue. As I said earlier, the attribution for the building belongs to Trumbauer. So if you're going to change the name of the building, at a minimum you have to include Trumbauer's name. Now, could you- is it reasonable that the building could be named Trumbauer-Abele? Yes.

Kelly Dender:

Okay.

Mr. Wilson:

And I think that would be.... What did I want to say? The traditional way to solve that issue. But coming back to your question about, well could it be named for Julian Abele? My position is yes. That Abele's contribution to that building standing there is significant enough that it substantiates that the building could carry his name.

Kelly Dender:

Very true. I agree. I think it's a testament to his work. It's just one example, but a great example.

Kelly Dender:

So Julian was notoriously humble, as we touched on, how do you think he would feel about the attention now being brought to him, like from our class, or at the Duke University campus?

Mr. Wilson:

Well, that's a very difficult question to answer. Because I was born too late to have the opportunity to interview him, and he did not leave any letters or diaries or correspondence, that would give a clue as to how he would feel about it. I think that if the emphasis started with Trumbauer, that he would then be willing to be an addition to that emphasis. But if the emphasis was directly on him, he would not be pleased.

Kelly Dender:

Because he wouldn't care for the spotlight as much as he would rather be on the coattails of Trumbauer's?

Mr. Wilson:

Exactly.

Kelly Dender:

Okay. Do you have a favorite Abele building? You said you visited all of them, that's incredible.

Mr. Wilson:

As I mentioned earlier, I think the Duke University campus is one of the most beautiful in the world. In terms of institutional buildings, I really like the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard. I think it is just a very, very significant institutional building. And then in Newport, there is a mansion named Miramar, which, the client was Eleanor Widener, who paid for Widener Library at Harvard. It's her residence, her summer residence. And I think it is one of the most beautiful. And one of the reasons... Because I like Shadow Lawn, but I favor Miramar because the interior decoration of Miramar was a great, much better than Shadow Lawn. And the landscape architecture at Miramar, which was not done by Trumbauer's firm at all. But the landscape surrounding the entire mansion is superior to Shadow Lawn.

Kelly Dender:

Okay. All right. And I'm sure that's a hard question for you, a difficult question to answer because you are an architect. I'm sure it's hard to pick. What drew you to writing about Julie Abele? How did you get into that?

Mr. Wilson:

I took my master's degree at the University of Chicago. And it was, and still is a very- a bastion of liberal education. And I had the tremendous good luck to have as my advisor, John Hope Franklin, who was one of the America's eminent historians. And he asked me when I wanted to do my master's thesis, what subject did I want to do? And I said, "Well, I am really not sure." I came from Iowa State, which was an overwhelmingly white University, and I really wanted to do something in African American topic. And so Dr. Franklin asked me, he said well, "What do you do for a living?" And I told him I'm a landscape architect. And Dr. Franklin said, "Well, why don't you do something on black architects?"

Mr. Wilson:

So my master's thesis I did on 12 African American architects, and one of those 12 was Julian Abele. I tried after I graduated, I tried to have my thesis published as a book. I got a lot of rejections. One of the rejection letters, said, they didn't really think much of the fact that I was trying to cover 12 architects. So why don't I just pick one and write a biography of it? When I looked at the 12, and I thought about who was the most interesting overall, not the best, necessarily the best architect, although Julian Abele probably is, but I just saw who is the most interesting architect, then I zeroed in on Julian Abele.

Kelly Dender:

Wow. So Julian has been on your mind for quite a while.

Mr. Wilson:

Oh, well, yes. I was researching his biography for 35 years.

Kelly Dender:

Wow. Wow. So that leads me to my next question, what are some of the most useful sources you used when researching that biography over that period of time?

Mr. Wilson:

Probably the most useful were interviews that I conducted with his children, and with his relatives, aunts, uncles, and nieces. They were tremendous, or at least they didn't know that much about the architecture, but they could fill in everything else. And the next most useful is the Philadelphia Athenaeum, is the repository for the Office of Horace Trumbauer records. And so they had a tremendous amount of primary documents and drawings. And so I mined all of that. And that was a very, very helpful.

Mr. Wilson:

And then 26 I believe, buildings that Julian Abele designed are on the National Register of Historic Places. And the Register has all of the documents that they gathered in order to prepare the nominations, and they're full of architectural information. Shadow Lawn is one of those buildings, it's on the National Register…And so those were the most significant resources for me.

Kelly Dender:

That's great. But still there was that much documentation-

Mr. Wilson:

Yes.

Kelly Dender:

If you had to pick one thing that you found most interesting about Abele in the course of your research, what would it be?

Mr. Wilson:

I think that the most interesting thing about Abele, was that without having ever studied in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts, he was able to take his education at the University of Pennsylvania, which was a curriculum that was geared to the Beaux-Arts, and teach himself how to become a Beaux-Arts architect. And certainly my estimation, he is the greatest American born Beaux-Arts architect that we have. He even surpasses, in my opinion Louis Sullivan, Stanford White, Pope … all of whom studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and got degrees from the École. But I don't believe they are as great as Julian Abele.

Kelly Dender:

Yeah, I agree. Now that I have discovered the greatness that is Julian Abele and read your biography of him, I think it's amazing that he was able to accomplish so much without actually studying in Paris. Is there anything else that you'd like to add that we haven't covered?

Mr. Wilson:

No, I think that about covers it. One of the things that I might mention that might be helpful to you in terms of the exhibit, is that the National Trust has a grant program, African American history... African American, A-A-H-S-T, I think it is, I can't remember what the acronym is. But each year, they have a grant program that you can access online. And if there are, and I'm sure there, capital improvements that need to be made at, I call it Shadow Lawn, you could apply for a grant, assistance from the trust. And so I would encourage you to look into that. Even in terms of helping to subsidize the cost of the exhibit, I believe that that is also something that would be eligible. You should check that out and see if what you're undertaking meets with their eligibility criteria.

Kelly Dender:

Wow, thank you so much for the suggestion. That's great. I didn't even know.

End of Interview