Architect Julian Abele designed some of the 20th century’s most illustrious buildings, but recognition of his contributions came only after decades of obscurity.
A member of Philadelphia’s African-American aristocracy from the 1800s, Abele is a descendant of Absalom Jones, co-founder of the Free African Society, a support group for free blacks.
After Abele received his degree from Penn in 1902, he immediately began working for the esteemed Horace Trumbauer firm of Philadelphia.
As the firm’s chief designer, Abele was the architect for buildings that included the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the main Philadelphia Free Library building, and Harvard’s Widener Memorial Library. The Trumbauer firm also designed Penn’s Irvine Auditorium; it is unknown how closely Abele was involved in its design.
Abele contributed to the design of more than 400 buildings in his career.
Despite his accomplishments and influence as an architect, racism limited recognition of his work. For more than 35 years, he didn’t sign his name to his architectural designs until Abele and associate William Frank took over the firm after Trumbauer died in 1938. And it wasn’t until 1942 that Abele became a member of the American Institute of Architects.
He spent the last 20 years of his life and career designing neo-Gothic buildings on the campus of Duke University, including the iconic Duke Chapel, the library, Cameron Indoor Stadium, the hospital, the school of religion, and the faculty house.
Abele’s role in designing Duke’s campus wasn’t publicly acknowledged until 1986, when his great grand-niece mentioned it in a letter to the school newspaper during student protests against apartheid in South Africa.
Documents in Duke’s archives show that Abele’s work on the buildings was not a secret, but for more than 60 years, it just wasn’t publicly known that the principal architect of the campus was a black pioneer in architecture.
Abele’s portrait now hangs in the main lobby of Duke’s administration building, which he designed.
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives online.
Originally published on April 10, 2014