The Julian Abele reference collection includes articles, correspondence, clippings, printed and genealogical material, and other files related to Julian Abele, his work, his family, and African American architects.
Julian Francis Abele was born in 1881 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of eight children in a prominent African American family, and attended the Institute for Colored Youth, Brown Preparatory School, and the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art before studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania when he did so in 1902 at age 21.
In 1906, Abele began working as an assistant to the chief designer of the architecture firm of Horace Trumbauer. In 1909, Abele became the chief designer. Around that time, he designed a home for James Buchanan Duke in New York City. Duke was impressed with the Trumbauer firm's work, and they were hired to design and oversee the building of West Campus when Trinity College became Duke University in 1924.
The design and construction of Duke's campus was a massive undertaking, and Julian Abele took the lead in much of the design work. As was common practice, his architectural drawings were signed with the name of the firm of Horace Trumbauer and not his own name. He worked on most of the Gothic style buildings on West Campus, including the Chapel, the library, the football stadium, the gymnasium, the medical school, the hospital, and the school of religion (now the Divinity School). He largely oversaw the work from Philadelphia over the more than two decades he was involved with Duke's campus; although it is generally accepted that he did not travel to Durham or the segregated South, some evidence exists to suggest he may have visited the campus at one point. He worked on a library addition and signed a drawing for Cameron Indoor Stadium after Trumbauer's death, as well as the Allen Building, which was incomplete at the time of his death.
Abele designed and contributed to many buildings in the Classical and Beaux Arts styles, including Harvard University's Widener Library, the Philadelphia Free Library, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (in collaboration with the firm of Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary), and the New York Evening Post building. The Great Depression took a toll on the firm of Horace Trumbauer, which specialized in large, luxurious buildings and residences, and when Trumbauer died in 1938, Abele and the remaining architect, William Frank, kept the name of the firm to reduce uncertainty. However, Abele did begin signing his own name to his drawings.
Julian Abele was close to his sister, Elizabeth Abele Cook, and she and her children lived with him for a time in the 1910s and 1920s. Abele married Marguerite Bulle, a French musician who immigrated to Philadelphia, in 1925, and the couple had three children: Julian Junior, Marguerite Marie, and Nadia. Marguerite Marie died at the age of 5, and the Abeles separated in 1933. In 1942, Julian Abele became a member of the American Institute of Architects. He died in 1950 at the age of 68, of a heart attack.
Although evidence for Abele's involvement in the design and construction of Duke's West Campus existed in the University Archives, including evidence that some University administrators knew of his role and likely his race, his name was not generally known or associated with the design for many years. During the time Abele worked on the design and construction of the campus, Duke University was only open to whites, and Jim Crow laws severely limited the rights and activities of African Americans in the South; if he did visit the campus during that time, he would not have been welcome in many places. His involvement in the work was acknowledged in several sources, but did not become widely known in the Duke community until 1986. That year, students protesting Duke's investment in apartheid South Africa built shanties in front of the Chapel. A student wrote to the Chronicle to complain that the ugliness of the shanties "violates our rights as students to a beautiful campus." Susan Cook, a Duke student and Julian Abele's great grand-niece, wrote a response that claimed her great grand-uncle, as an African American and the designer of the campus, would not have objected to the shanties as he was himself "a victim of apartheid" in his own country. This letter brought Julian Abele's name to the attention of the student body and many others who had not known of his existence and involvement in the design and building of Duke, and in the years that followed his contribution has been recognized and honored in a variety of ways. In 1987 the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association began the Julian Abele Awards and Recognition Banquet and unveiled a commissioned portrait of the architect. This portrait was hung in the foyer of the Allen Building, the first of a black person at Duke. This portrait now hangs in the Gothic Reading Room of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a building Abele designed.