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The Julian Abele Project: The Office of Horace Trumbauer

Trumbauer and Abele at Work

Much has been written about architect Horace Trumbauer, and we don't want to repeat his biography here -- on the contrary, our hope is to bring Julian Abele out of Trumbauer's shadow. But we want to highlight these excerpts from our interview with Abele biographer Dreck Spurlock Wilson, which we think help shine light on the way the Office of Horace Trumbauer functioned, and the dynamic between the men. We encourage you to read the full transcript of the interview, or watch the video (available elsewhere in this libguide). 

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Wilson:

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.

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Wilson:

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.

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.

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.

Wilson:

Yes.

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?

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.

Dender:

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

Wilson:

Right.