Biography of Julian Abele

Black in Philadelphia (1881 - 1950)

Historic black and white photo of black architect Julian Abele, early 20th century
Historic black and white photo of black architect Julian Abele, early 20th century. Photo courtesy Duke University Archives digital collection, Julian Abele (1881-1950), modified

Julian Abele (born April 29, 1881 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, according to the University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center) is best known in Durham, North Carolina as the architect of the Duke University campus.

The story of Julian Francis Abele is not "rags-to-riches" but a tale of hard work and dedication. In college Abele called himself "Willing and Able." A brilliant and accomplished student, Abele became the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture.

Although not America's first architect of color, Julian Abele was one of the first prominent Black architects in America, finding success with the Philadelphia architecture firm led by Horace Trumbauer. The Duke University Chapel may be Abele's most famous building.

Died: April 23, 1950 in Philadelphia

Education, Training, and Professional Life:

  • Institute for Colored Youth and Brown Preparatory School, Philadelphia
  • 1898: Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art
  • 1902: B.A. in Arch. - University of Pennsylvania
  • 1902-1903: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; worked for Philadelphia architect Louis C. Hickman while in school
  • 1903-1905: traveled to Western US, worked on a house for his sister's family, Elizabeth Rebecca Abele Cook
  • circa 1905: three years of travel in Europe and study in France
  • 1906: began work for Horace Trumbauer; became chief designer in 1909 until Trumbauer's death in 1938. The Office of Horace Trumbauer continued under the leadership of its principals, Julian Abele and William O. Frank
  • 1942: Admitted to the American Institute of Architects (AIA)

Notable Buildings as Trumbauer's Chief Designer:

  • 1909-1912: James Buchanan Duke House, New York City
  • c. 1912: Frank P. Mitchell house (Argentine Embassy), Washington, DC
  • 1915: Miramar (The George D. Widener Cottage), Newport, RI
  • 1915: Widener Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
  • 1921: Whitemarsh Hall, Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania
  • 1925: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1927: Central Library, Free Library of Philadelphia, PA
  • 1928: James B. Clews Residence, Long Island, NY
  • 1930: Perkins Library, Duke University West Campus, Durham, North Carolina
  • 1935: Duke University Chapel, West Campus, Durham, North Carolina
  • 1938: Duke University Dormitories, West Campus, Durham, NC
  • 1940: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke University West Campus, Durham, NC

At the turn of the twentieth century, many American architects made a good living building Great Homes of the Gilded Age. Horace Trumbauer's commission to build a New York City estate for tobacco tycoon James B. Duke really paid off with the much larger projects at Duke University, where Julian Abele made his mark in architecture.

Personal Life:

  • 1925: Married to Marguerite Bulle, a French musician; three children, Julian, Jr., Marguerite Marie (died in childhood), and Nadia Boulanger. The marriage dissolved by 1936 when the younger Marguerite became involved with another musician. They never divorced.
  • Julian, Jr. and Abele's sister's child, Julian Abele Cook (1904 - 1986), both became architects

Duke University Architecture:

In 1892 Trinity College moved 70 miles east to Durham, North Carolina and the Duke family began funding campus building.

By 1924, the Duke Endowment was established and Trinity College transformed into Duke University. The original East Campus was renovated with Georgian-style buildings, after the Collegiate Georgian Architecture popular at other universities. Beginning in 1927 a West Campus was added, built in a Gothic-revival architectural style also popular at large, established Ivy League institutions. Architecture was used to bring students, faculty, and prestige to the new Duke institution—if it looked like a university, it must be one.

The Philadelphia architecture firm led by Horace Trumbauer began the transformation of Trinity into Duke. Trumbauer's head designer Julian Abele, along with William O. Frank, tackled the Duke projects from 1924 to 1958. The pièce de résistance of Abele's designs is the iconic Duke Chapel, which became the centerpiece of the West Campus.

Collegiate Gothic style is a revival of 12th century Gothic architecture, with soaring ceilings, pointed arches, and flying buttresses. For Duke's Chapel, begun in 1930, Abele employed modern building techniques and materials to eliminate the need to buttress the walls. Steel trusses and structural Guastavino ceramic tile gave strength to the 210 foot structure, while local volcanic Hillsborough bluestone distinguished the distinctive facade of the neo-Gothic design. The Chapel tower, modeled after England's Canterbury Cathedral, became a prototype for many of the future towers of Duke University.

Olmsted landscape architects, from the prestigious firm founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, were employed to create a walkable campus, connecting the architecture with the surrounding natural beauty. If the intent of Duke was to rival the great universities of the northeast, this twentieth century campus, designed in part by a prominent African-American architect, accomplished the task.

In the Words of Julian Abele:

"The shadows are all mine."—commenting on the unsigned architectural drawings for the Gothic Revival Duke University Chapel, Duke University Archives

Learn More:

  • "Out of the Shadows" by Susan E. Tifft, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2005
  • Philadelphia Area Architecture of Horace Trumbauer (Images of America) by Rachel Hildebrandt and the Old York Road Historical Society, 2009
    Buy on Amazon
  • American Splendor: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer by Michael C. Kathrens, rev. 2012
    Buy on Amazon
  • Duke University: An Architectural Tour by John M. Bryan, 2000
    Buy on Amazon
  • Duke University: An Architectural Tour (The Campus Guide) by Ken Friedlein and John Pearce, 2015
    Buy on Amazon
  • Friends of Julian Abele Park, Philadelphia, PA

Sources: Penn Biographies, University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center; Julian F. Abele, Architect, Free Library of Philadelphia; Biography and Projects from the American Architects and Buildings database, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia; Duke's Architecture, Office of the University Architect, Duke University; Black U.S. Architect Designed a Bond with Argentina, IIP Digital, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State; Frank P. Mitchell House, African American Historic Places Database, National Trust for Historic Preservation; History, The Building at http://chapel.duke.edu/history/building, Duke University Chapel. Websites accessed April 3-4, 2014.