Unraveling Myths About Philly’s Pioneering African American Architect

May 23, 2019 | by Amy Cohen


Philadelphia architect Julian Francis Abele in 1927. | Image courtesy of Penn Archives

For many decades, architect Julian Francis Abele (1881-1950) was not given enough credit for his work. Abele received a degree in architectural drawing from the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (now UArts), became the first African American to graduate with a B.A. in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania (1902), and earned a certificate in architectural drawing from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Nonetheless, a 1974 book about elaborate Newport, Rhode Island mansions contains the following absurd assertion: “The story goes that Trumbauer was frequently intoxicated, and so he left most of his work on these houses to be done by Julian Abele, his gifted black servant.”

Horace Trumbauer, Abele’s employer, was known to overindulge and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver, but the idea that Abele was his servant is ridiculous. Indeed, Trumbauer, although head of a prestigious architectural firm, never had formal training. Thus, the extremely well-prepared Abele served as the firm’s chief designer for decades. When the drink finally caught up with Trumbauer, Abele and another high-ranking employee took over the firm until Abele passed on as well.

Today, however, misconceptions, exaggerations, and falsehoods about Julian Abele continue to abound. And some of these Abele myths, it pains me to say, actually give Abele too much credit. Let’s start with the big one first.

Was Julian Abele the architect of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s, articles appeared in the local African-American press claiming that Julian Abele designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The idea that Abele was the architect for the museum is an oversimplification. The design and construction of the museum took decades and was a not always harmonious collaboration between the Trumbauer firm and the firm of Zantzinger and Borie. See David Brownlee’s book Building the City Beautiful if you want the nitty gritty details.

These prints of the Philadelphia Museum of Art include the signatures of Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele, but many other architects should be cited for the final design. | Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

According to the extensive research done by Brownlee and by Abele’s biographer Dreck Wilson, it seems that Abele certainly did numerous initial designs for the building. For a number of years, though, Howell Lewis Shay, another Trumbauer designer, took the lead within the firm. Toward the end of the project, Abele stepped back in.

Although he surely played a role in creating this glorious building, neither Abele, nor any one individual, deserves the singular title: architect of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Did Julian Abele design the Irvine Auditorium at Penn?

Wouldn’t it be poetic if the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Architecture designed one of the most iconic buildings on campus? According to Penn’s website, this was the case. Abele’s biographer, Dreck Wilson, however, asserts that Abele’s preferred material was limestone and that he would not have designed a red brick edifice such as Irvine Auditorium.

Furthermore, a 1983 letter written by Penn archivist Francis James Dallet summarizes an interview he had conducted with a Trumbauer employee, Valentine Burkhart Lee. “…Lee remembers specifically that the finished design was one of the few big commissions not finished by Abele. It was given to ‘an older man who had been in the City Architect’s office and installed the elevators in City Hall’ before joining Trumbauer. While Mr. Lee can recall this man’s appearance, etc. he cannot recall his name. But he remembers distinctly that this was not an Abele job.”

It is incontrovertible, however, that Abele was the lead architect for Duke University in North Carolina, a project he undertook after the death of Trumbauer. Abele designed 39 buildings for the Durham campus, including a spectacular Gothic chapel and Cameron Indoor Stadium where the Blue Devils continue to play basketball. This leads us to another tricky chapter in the Abele story.

Did Abele ever visit Duke University’s campus?

There are multiple schools of thought on this question. One would think that either the requirements of the job or sheer curiosity would necessitate a visit to such a significant site by its lead architect. Abele, however, was a Black man, and the project took place in the Jim Crow South.

A 2005 Smithsonian article states the following: “In the early 1960s, John H. Wheeler, a prominent black banker in Durham, North Carolina, told George Esser, then executive director of the North Carolina Fund, that he recalled Abele coming to visit the campus during construction. What’s more, in a 1989 interview, Henry Magaziner, son of Abele’s friend and Penn classmate Louis Magaziner, recalled Abele telling him that ‘a Durham, North Carolina hotel had refused to give him a room during a trip to the university, while accommodating his white associate, William Frank.’”

Julian Abele designed Cameron Indoor Stadium and 38 other buildings at Duke University in North Carolina. | Image courtesy of Duke University 

In contrast, Abele’s family members assert that he would not have traveled to the segregated South. A ride in a Jim Crow railway car from Spokane, Washington to Philadelphia decades earlier had left Abele determined never to suffer similar humiliation. Abele’s colleague, Valentine Lee, traveled frequently back and forth from Philadelphia to Durham as the campus plans were fine-tuned, but said of Abele, “his talents were needed and best utilized in the home office.”

In the words of Abele biographer Dreck Wilson, “(Valentine) Lee could not recall Abele ever traveling to Durham. Overnight accommodations would have proved problematic. Durham hotels were racially segregated including Washington Duke Hotel. There were Negro boarding houses, but Abele would not have been caught dead in one.”

Wilson continues, “Construction sites, in general, were rampantly dangerous. Immigrant tradesman were viciously hostile toward “uppity” Negroes. Abele was never one to instigate any unpleasantries.”

My hunch is that Abele did not take the risk of visiting a place where he would be unwelcome and treated poorly, but the mystery remains unresolved.

Did Abele attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris?

Although Abele, with his three architectural degrees, was certainly well-prepared upon being hired by Horace Trumbauer, numerous articles and biographical descriptions about Abele tell some version of the following story about Abele recounted in the 1975 book, Twilight of Splendor. “Trumbauer…made arrangements for him to take the entrance examination in Paris that fall. Abele passed. He then spent the next four years as a student in the ateliers of the school, supported entirely by Trumbauer. One may assume that Trumbauer enjoyed some measure of paternal gratification when Able was awarded the B.S. diplome d’architecte in the winter of 1905-1906.”

But here’s the rub: there is no record of Abele ever attending, much less graduating from, the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Abele did spend time in Paris at some points in his life. He was an avid Francophile and married a French woman.

Perhaps Trumbauer and Abele, each for their own reasons, were happy to maintain the story of the former’s generosity and the latter’s virtuosity.

This presentation drawing of the Free Library of Philadelphia, designed by Horace Trumbauer, is believed to be the work of Julian Abele. Scholars say proper attribution is difficult given that the architect seldomly signed his blueprints and drawings. | Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Let’s consider why so many myths and misunderstandings surround Julian Francis Abele.

  • As was common practice, employees at the Trumbauer firm did not sign their work. The only name to appear on the drawings and blueprints of the vast majority of projects in which Abele was involved was that of Horace Trumbauer. Abele did not overtly bristle at this policy. Indeed, when Abele belatedly applied to the American Institute of Architects in 1942, the only buildings he listed as his own were a house he designed for his sister and the Duke University buildings he worked on after Trumbauer’s death.
  • As far as we know, Abele did not keep a diary, and only limited correspondence of the Trumbauer firm remains.
  • Abele was a private and quiet person. His hobbies were needlepoint, woodworking, painting, and playing the piano. Few people claim to know him well, including his own children.
  • Abele was a black man in a white world. He was a talented designer who enjoyed his chosen profession. After attending the Institute for Colored Youth in South Philadelphia, however, Abele spent the rest of his life as the only black person in nearly any room he was in when not at home. Abele’s talents drew attention, but he remained obscure—likely a necessity to his success. So while his buildings were celebrated, his role as a black architect was not. It took until the late 1980s for Duke University to acknowledge that this southern school was the work of an African American. Today, a portrait of Abele sits outside of the Duke president’s office, an Abele Awards Dinner is held each year to recognize black achievement, and, in 2016, a section of campus was renamed the Abele Quad.
  • Racism certainly influenced the downplaying of Abele’s contributions. It is consistent with our national history that the accomplishments of a black man went unrecognized. Unfortunately, though, the reaction to learning about Abele’s many achievements too often has been exaggeration. As I confronted overstatements of Abele’s importance in high profile projects, I kept thinking of a quotation from Carter G. Woodson about the purpose of Negro History Week (now African American History Month). “We should emphasize not so much Negro history, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he has influenced the development of civilization.”

Indeed, there is no need for “undue eulogy” of Julian Francis Abele. Even if he didn’t singlehandedly design the Philadelphia Museum of Art or Irvine Auditorium, what he did accomplish is remarkable and should never again be forgotten.


About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.


  1. Davis says:

    Excellent piece. It’s good to put the myths away – none are needed to laud his fine work.

  2. John G. Livewell says:

    Thank you for this article. I great bit of information.

  3. Diane Donato says:

    As a tour guide at the Free Library’s central branch,I appreciate Ms. Cohen’s study of Julian Abele. I can certainly use this information during my tour. Thank you.

  4. Reisa Mukamal says:

    Thanks for the great information. This was shared by the weekday guides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  5. Randall Gabrielan says:

    What a fine, well-balanced and researched article. It seems in some circles that in order to boost Abele, it is necessary to tear down, even erase, Trumbauer. I have experienced that in New Jersey.

  6. John Egan says:

    Abele was able to withstand Jim Crow treatment throughout his life. It is easy to see how a trip to NC would not be attractive to him. Let us now praise famous men!

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