Reassessing Horace Trumbauer

April 22, 2016 | by Karen Chernick

Editor’s Note: Horace Trumbauer, the brilliant, underrated architect behind two of Philadelphia’s iconic temples of education and culture–the Parkway Central branch of the Free Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art–dropped out of high school at age 16. He worked his way up from the ground floor position as an office boy at the firm of George and William D. Hewitt and started his own firm five years later, eventually landing commissions to design imperial residences, noteworthy civic buildings, and iconic institutional architecture, most prominently at Duke University. Trumbauer was internationally renowned, but shamefully not recognized by the Philadelphia architectural community. He never received medals of achievement from the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The Philadelphia chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art will honor Trumbauer with an award to celebrate contemporary classical projects that express the breadth and inclusiveness present in a body of work. The Trumbauer Awards, currently in its inaugural year, will release an official call for entries in May.

Contributor Karen Chernick spoke with Bruce Laverty, curator of architecture at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, about Trumbauer’s life, his unique relationship with African American architect Julian Abele, and why late 19th century Philadelphia was the right time and place for the architect to launch his career.

Horace Trumbauer (Middle) with Eleanor Widener Rice and George Widener, Jr. at the dedication of Widener Memorial Library Harvard University | Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Horace Trumbauer, center, with Eleanor Widener Rice and George Widener, Jr. at the dedication of Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University | Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Karen Chernick: Very little is published about Trumbauer the person. What can you share with us about him?

Bruce Laverty: I did not know Trumbauer personally, but I’ve been the curator of architecture at the Athenaeum for 33 years. We have the records and documentation for well over 2,000 architects, and there is no other architect or architectural firm that I get research calls for with the frequency that I get for Trumbauer and Abele, and the firm as a whole. He is by far the most sought after, in terms of research.

KC: What do you attribute that to?

BL: The tremendous scope of the things that he did, the power and the status of his clients, and the beauty of his buildings. The other thing is his unique relationship with Julian Abele, who was his chief draughtsman and the first black graduate from the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Trumbauer financed his trip to Europe, where he studied in Paris and audited classes at the École des Beaux Arts. When Abele comes back to Philadelphia, Trumbauer hires him as his chief designer. Trumbauer sort of grabbed the best and brightest from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture.

The singular place that Julian Abele has in the story of Philadelphian architectural history, and in the cultural story in terms of his pioneering status as an African American architect, adds to the curiosity. There is no (unlike a number of other architectural collections) corpus of correspondence, either professional or personal, that survives from the Trumbauer firm and could shed light on the particular roles that the designers played within the firm or his relationship with the clients. While there are many, many drawings that survive for Trumbauer’s work, those are kind of the bones of which only the text could build the flesh in telling the full story.

Trumbauer died in 1938. His wife preceded him in death by three years. He had only one daughter, and in his obituary it mentions that he left an estate of $10,000. For an average family in 1938 that would have been great, but for somebody with his resume that’s not a lot, particularly since the firm never really slowed down. Given the huge residential projects that carried him through the last ten years of the 19th century and the first thirty years of the 20th century, even though those slowed down throughout the 1930s, he was working on Duke University, which must have been bringing a lot of money into the firm. It’s unusual that the amount was so small. His daughter did an oral history interview that we have a file of. She did mention that he was a gambler, both in the stock market and in the roll of the dice. I don’t know what his gambling habits were, but he would not have been alone if he had lost money in the stock market crash.

His daughter did mention what today his behavior would be described as sort of manic depressive behavior, and said that she had a manic relationship with him. Sometimes very warm, sometimes very distant and cold. He paid for her to go to a boarding school in Long Island, but never came to her graduation. Only child. But after she graduated, he gave her a diamond ring and was very pleased with how well she had done in her studies. She did say several times in the interview that he was somewhat withdrawn, and always suffered from an inferiority complex about his lack of education.

Certainly there were other architects in the 20th century in the Philadelphia community and beyond who somewhat looked down their noses at Trumbauer and his designs. Among them would have been Paul Philippe Cret. Cret comes to Philadelphia from France in 1903. He’s actually brought over to Philadelphia by the University of Pennsylvania to establish the École des Beaux Arts training system at Penn. Cret not only is a great teacher, but he’s a very prolific architect as well. Probably the only Philadelphia architect of that period that rivals Trumbauer’s scope and importance. David Brownlee, who wrote a book about the design of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway where both Cret and Trumbauer were involved in various projects and at least one together, quoted Cret as saying, “Well, any Trumbauer could have done that.”

Philadelphia Museum of Art | Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Philadelphia Museum of Art | Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Cret was trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and he used that as sort of a launching point, whereas Trumbauer was most concerned with pleasing the client. If that meant giving an exact copy of a European precedent, he had no problem with that. He was not as concerned with expressing his own personality in a building. With buildings like the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Philadelphia Free Library or the Widener Library at Harvard University, you could point at those buildings and say, “Well, it’s a great public building of its age,” but you wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh! There’s Trumbauer,” in the way that you could with Furness or Paul Cret.

KC: Do you think that’s part of the reason he was successful?

BL: Absolutely! I think that’s part of the reason he was successful.

KC: Do you think he would have been as successful if he started out in another city? To what extent do you think Trumbauer is a product of Philadelphia?

BL: He had a couple of things on his side. First, he did have talent and he was a hard worker. But timing and location meant a great deal. Many architects enter the profession with social connections and potential client connections already established such as from an old family. T.P. Chandler, the 19th century architect who founds the School of Architecture at Penn, made a very wise career move in the 1870s and married a woman whose last name was DuPont. That helped launch a career and then sustain it. Trumbauer came from a middle class background. He grew up here in Philadelphia, went to the public schools, and as one of four children had to drop out of high school at the age of 16 to help support his family. So he hires himself out as an office boy at one of the most successful architectural firms of his time, George and William D. Hewitt, who were formerly associated with Frank Furness. He works for the Hewitt firm for about five years and in 1890 he establishes his own office.

The other reason why Philadelphia was perhaps a more fertile ground for Trumbauer than other places had to do with the old Philadelphia division of society, which became very clear, particularly in the years after the Civil War. In Philadelphia, the Quaker City, the old money had the tendency to be relatively quiet about that. They built grand houses, but not flashy. It was never in the Quaker mode to try to outshine their neighbors. You might have a lot more money than they and you might talk about that, but you didn’t show it.

In the period after the Civil War in Philadelphia, enormous fortunes were being made by people who did not have the sort of lineage that went back to the 18th or 17th century and didn’t have a Quaker sensibility of “you’re doing well, keep quiet about it.” These were people like the Wideners and the Elkins and the Drexels, who were amassing fortunes that dwarfed the old money fortunes of the time. In terms of social circles in Philadelphia, that new money was shunned by the old guard. It’s a little hard to understand from today’s perspective, but it meant so much who your father was and where your grandparents went to school, and it didn’t matter that you were worth $10 million. E.T. Stotesbury worked for A.J. Drexel, he got his start as an office boy and worked his way up through the banking house, and Stotesbury was a member of every club in the city except the Philadelphia Club, because his father was a nobody. There was a barrier there and the nouveau riche compensated by building bigger and better and also endowing philanthropic institutions. Trumbauer comes of age architecturally just at that time and takes advantage of that. In New York, how much money you had meant everything from the get-go, from 1630 on. In Philadelphia, it had begun to change.

Sketch of the Public Ledger Building | Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Trumbauer took advantage of his location. Wealthy Philadelphians had tremendous connections. If you look at his early client list in the 1890s, Elkins and Widener made their money here both in the streetcar franchises as well as supplying meat during the Civil War. Both of them became very early trustees of the Standard Oil company, so the Elkinses and Wideners hobnobbed and conducted business with the Rockefellers. These Philadelphia families were not just Philadelphia superstars, they’re American superstars because they’re involved in the running of some very major things. E.J. Berwind is a sort of rags to riches story. He’s born in Philadelphia, became the head of a major coal mining company, and then becomes involved with the J.P. Morgan Trust, so he had a national reach too. Trumbauer enters that world fairly early on.

Trumbauer gets his nose through the carpet while he’s working for Wendell and Smith doing residential houses in Overbrook, Wayne, and St. Davids, and the Pelham neighborhood in Germantown in the early 1890s. The Overbrook property in particular was a real estate development from Drexel, and my guess is that he came to the attention of A.J. Drexel at that time. His first big break is with William Welsh Harrison at Grey Towers in Glenside, which is now Arcadia University. My guess is that Harrison would have known Drexel. So what does Harrison want? He doesn’t want a quiet, little romantic cottage. He wants a castle. Trumbauer doesn’t just design a castle that expresses Trumbauer, he uses an archaeological method and it’s a copy of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England. It’s a real castle that he’s sort of transplanted into Cheltenham Township. It’s the first big thing that Trumbauer does and a quantum leap from the middle class homes that Wendell and Smith are doing. Which are perfectly wonderful, and the fact that all three developments are still very desirable places to live is a testimony to Trumbauer and the other architects as well as Wendell and Smith’s designs. So, he takes this quantum leap into that rarefied world and then follows it up with a series of successes with the Elkinses and the Widenders.

Through those major connections between Drexel, Stotesbury, Elkins and Widener, Trumbauer has this entrée into American aristocracy of the new money and people who wanted flashy homes. One of the reasons for Trumbauer’s success is that he took advantage of those connections at just the right time. The other factor that he had in his favor is that his practice matures in the mid 1890s just as the American architectural world is turning, and that’s the result of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the overwhelming wash of love for Beaux Arts architecture in America. People who went to Chicago saw that American cities could look like European cities, and we could have an imperial architecture here. Rich Americans had been building palaces since Vanderbilt in the 1870s and 80s, but suddenly the American public and the people who would be investing in the remaking of American cities said, “Oh, it’s not just a question that our factories are going to make the cities rich, but we can have beautiful cities too.” And those people like the Elkinses and the Wideners and the Dukes invested in making beautiful public spaces as well, and they sponsored philanthropic institutions. I think if Trumbauer had started ten years earlier, it would have been a very different story. I think if he had started ten years later it would have been a very different story.

KC: Going back to Lynnewood Hall, designed by Trumbauer in 1897, what do you envision for the future of that building and what do you think is realistic at this point?

BL: Well, sort of the great precedent for how you handle this wonderful collection of landscapes and houses, including Georgian Terrace and Chelten House, would be the DuPont family in Delaware, at Winterthur. But the DuPont family, which certainly had plenty of money long before the Wideners came along, had more of a family commitment to preserving those houses whereas, for the Wideners, these served their purposes and then the family members got out. It would be wonderful if we could have Lynnewood Hall a la Longwood Gardens. That didn’t happen. You could say that maybe the National Trust would take one or more of those properties, except they don’t take properties unless they come with a maintenance endowment. I think the supervisors at Cheltenham township would love to just see them disappear, because I think all of those properties are owned by non-profit agencies and don’t pay any real estate taxes.

 Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park | Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park | Courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

About 25 years ago, the Pew Charitable Trusts talked about a need for off site storage for all of the library and archival institutions, a collections central. The idea was that there would be a place where 30 or so institutions could store archival materials as well as art work, and have it in a climate controlled and secure spot. They looked at a number of sites in downtown Philadelphia and it never really quite got off the ground, much to my disappointment. I thought that any of these might be wonderful for that. Lynnewood Hall, in particular, had been a facility that was used during World War II to protect European art that had been taken out of Europe to keep it from either being destroyed or stolen by the Nazis. The building, as such, is designed as an art gallery, although most of its interiors were stripped and sold a few years ago.

KC: And all three are abandoned.

BL: Well, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci still own the retreat house and I think that it’s probably in the best condition of them. And God bless the Dominican Sisters. So much about preservation is just keeping the roof secure and making sure that the windows are not broken, and they did that. In the same way that many of the buildings that were owned by the Divine Peace Mission of the Father Divine were in terrific condition because they painted them and they repaired the roof. The Divine Lorraine Hotel was in great condition until the Divine Peace Mission sold it. But you don’t have to spend billions in restoration to keep buildings. I guess that’s the difference between preservation and restoration. So of the three, Lynnewood Hall is the toughest nut to crack because it’s been abandoned the longest and its interiors were stripped.

KC: Would you agree with Michael Kathrens’ characterization that Trumbauer’s principal body of work was residential architecture?

BL: No, I don’t. It is much too limiting, and that may have been the door that brought him the other commissions.The residential buildings (with the exception of the 5th Avenue and the Newport houses) didn’t make it, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, Irvine Law Auditorium, Hahnemann Hospital, the Widener Library at Harvard, Duke University: these are things that are not going away. I think we need to have a companion volume to this, because this tells the first story but if you look at the corpus of his work, it’s remarkable. I go to a gym at Broad and Locust before I come to work in the morning, and so I walk down Broad Street and see the Land Title Building where his office was (he didn’t design that building), and then I walk down the street to the Athenaeum and I pass the Widener building, I pass the building at Jefferson Hospital at 10th and Walnut, the Public Ledger Building and the Union League too. It’s a part of the fabric not just of Philadelphia, but New York City too. It’s much too limiting to say he was a great residential architect. The other thing is that he was smart enough to hire really great talent. I’ve always thought that one of the keys to success is that you hire really talented people and then let them go for it.


About the Author

Karen Chernick Karen Chernick is an art historian and museum professional who recently moved to Philadelphia from Tel Aviv. She is excited to discover the stories that her new home has to tell through its design, architecture and urban renewal.


  1. Jonn says:

    No mention of Whitemarsh Hall? The total loss of the third largest (by square footage) home ever built in the US? Its sad, slow decline into oblivion? The fact that it housed the Met’s collection during WWII? I grew up playing in the ruins, and its hauntingly overgrown rubble shaped my eye as a photographer today. I wish I had been alive to see it standing, as opposed to the crapulent tract homes in its place today…

  2. Larry Arrigale says:

    Nice article, but the “Sketch of the Widener Building” isn’t the Widener Building, at least not the Widener Building at Chestnut and Juniper Sts. The building pictured is far too big and looks more like a hotel or department store. Please GOOGLE image “Widener Building” and you’ll see. I’d post the correct image here but the Comment format won’t allow me to. I’m really surprised the Athenaeum would give you the wrong image to us.

    1. Davis says:

      Is it possibly a proposal for a larger building where the two buildings now stand?

  3. Bob Skiba says:

    A terrific interview! Well done, Bruce Laverty, you’ve made sense of so many things that were happening in late 19th and early 20th century Philadelphia for me.

  4. Larry Arrigale says:

    FOUND IT! The sketch above is actually the Public Ledger Building, now the Curtis Center at the SW corner of 6th & Chestnut.

    1. Jayfar says:

      That does appear to be the Public Ledger Building, but it isn’t now Curtis Center; it is adjacent to Curtis Center. I believe Cyrus Curtis’ businesses owned both however.

      1. Larry Arrigale says:

        Thanks. I stand corrected. The two buildings are sort of fraternal twins.
        While the PLB is rather flat on the street sides, the CC’s center section is set back. Otherwise the details are pretty much the same.

  5. NOMAguy says:

    In the late 18th and early 19th century the “chief draughtsman” correlates to the contemorary term projects manager. In Trumbauer’s office the chief draughtsman was Wm. Ott Frank. Abele and Frank Seeburger before him were “senior designers”.

  6. Joel Hause says:

    I have searched and searched and thus far have been unable to find out where Horace Trumbauer lived. Was it an opulent structure or just a practical home? Anybody know where Horace and his family lived??

    1. KC says:

      This journal states that around 1903 he and his wife “erected a modest house at 5122 Wynnefield Ave, Philadelphia PA”. This house appears to have been demolished and replaced with houses circa 2000.

    2. KC says:

      Before moving into 5122 Wynnefield Ave, Philadelphia PA Horace lived at 325 Hillside avenue, Jenkintown, PA, eventually buying both of the twin houses.

  7. Michael Bonacci says:

    Whitemarsh Hall was a architectures master piece and should have been saved but sadly is gone.

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