The next time you make the Rocky run up the front steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, take a moment to thank Julian Francis Abele, the first African-American graduate of what is now Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts, who was chief designer for the Horace Trumbauer architecture firm responsible for the Philly landmark.
Born in 1881, Abele grew up in Philadelphia. At Penn, he distinguished himself as an exceptional student, winning many prizes for his architectural designs, including first-place in a competition to create the Conklin Memorial Gateway at Haverford College. As an undergraduate, he also worked with the Louis Hickman Architectural Firm, managing his time by taking evening classes.
After graduating in 1902, Abele went to work at the renowned Trumbauer firm, and Trumbauer helped pay for Abele to advance his studies at l’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Afterward, Abele returned to Philadelphia and spent his entire career at the Trumbauer firm, serving as its chief engineer. He was responsible for designing several iconic Philadelphia buildings, including the Art Museum, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Land Title Building and Edward Stotesbury’s mansion Whitemarsh Hall in Chestnut Hill.
One of Abele’s most notable designs was the campus of Duke University, the largest construction project undertaken in the South in 1925. But because his personal signature was not on the original architectural drawings, Abele’s leading role in the design was not recognized for decades.
For more information about historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on November 12, 2009