Julian Francis Abele (April 30, 1881 – April 23, 1950) was a prominent African-American architect, and chief designer in the offices of Horace Trumbauer. He was the primary designer of the west campus of Duke University (1924–54). He contributed to the design of more than 400 buildings, including the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University (1912–15), the Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia (1918–27), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1914–28). Abele's contributions to the Trumbauer firm were great, but the only building for which he claimed authorship during Trumbauer's lifetime was the Duke University Chapel.
Julian Abele was born in Philadelphia into a prominent family. His maternal grandfather was Robert Jones, who in the late 18th century founded the city's Lombard Street Central Presbyterian Church. He was also related to Absalom Jones, who established the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1794, the first black church in Philadelphia. His nephew, Julian Abele Cook, worked as the Building Coordinator for Howard University, and Abele's son, Julian Francis Abele, Jr. was an architectural engineer.
Abele's temperament and his life defy easy characterization. He was a dedicated francophile, and his wife was French. A devotee of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as of the University of Pennsylvania football team, he was reserved and always immaculately dressed. One friend noted that even on vacations at the beach he always wore his suit to the boardwalk.
Abele worked in many media: watercolor, lithography, etching, pencil; in wood, iron, gold and silver. He designed and constructed all his own furniture, even doing the petit point himself. While he knew many historic styles, he seemed to love Louis XIV French most of all.
Abele attended the Quaker-run Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheyney University, where he excelled in mathematics and was chosen to deliver the commencement address. In 1898, he completed a two-year architectural drawing course at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (PMSIA), where he was nicknamed "Willing and Able." He won a number of awards, and headed the school's Architectural Society during his senior year.
He was the first black student admitted to the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and became the department's first black graduate in 1902. This achievement was all the more noteworthy for the restrictions blacks faced at the university, including not being able to live in dormitories or dine in the school's cafeteria. On projects assigned to pairs of students, he partnered with Louis Magaziner, the only Jewish student in the department, who also faced discrimination. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two.
Over the next few years, he worked part-time for a local architect and attend evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Under the financial sponsorship of Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer, he traveled through France and Italy, an experience that was to influence his design work throughout his life.
Abele's descendants contend that he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris during his stay in Europe. But Sandra L. Tatman, co-author of The Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects, 1700-1930, states that there is no record of his having been enrolled at the Ecole. She notes that he may have been allowed to informally sit in on the school's atelier. She also notes that Abele listed travel to France, Italy, England, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain on his membership application for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), but not study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
The fact is difficult to prove or disprove as there was a fire at the Ecole which destroyed many early records. Abele's grandson contends that he was caring for a sick relative shortly after graduation from the University of Pennsylvania. However, there are original drawings housed at the Athenaeum in Philadelphia from his European tour, and a sketch gothic house in Tours, France, dated 1915 was published in the AIA/T-Square Yearbook in 1915.
In 1906, Abele joined the Trumbauer firm as assistant to chief designer Frank Seeburger. When Seeburger left the firm in 1909, Abele advanced to chief designer. Abele's stature within the firm was no secret; he was the second-highest paid employee.
Following Trumbauer's death in 1938, the firm continued until 1950 under the name "Office of Horace Trumbauer," co-headed by Abele and William O. Frank. Commissions were hard to come by during The Depression and World War II, but the firm completed Cameron Indoor Stadium (1940) at Duke University, and later made additions to Duke's Library (1948), and designed Duke's Allen Administrative Building (1954).
When Abele joined the American Institute of Architects in 1942, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's director, Fiske Kimball, called him "one of the most sensitive designers in America". Art historian David B. Brownlee studied the 12-year effort to design and build the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He credits Trumbauer architect Howell Lewis Shay with the building's plan and massing, but notes that the final perspective drawings are in Abele's distinctive hand.
Despite being the primary designer of Duke University, Abele was refused accommodations at a Durham hotel during a visit to campus. Additionally, it was not until 1988 that a portrait of him was displayed at the University.
In 1925, at the age of 44, he married Marguerite Bulle, a French pianist 20 years his junior. They had three children: Julian Abele, Jr., Marguerite Marie Abele (died young), and Nadia Boulanger Abele. Marguerite left him in 1936, to become the common-law wife of opera singer Jozep Kowalewski, with whom she had three additional children. Because Abele never took action to divorce his wife, the Kowalewski children shared in his estate.
He died from a heart attack in 1950, in Philadelphia.The Allen Administrative Building at Duke University, which he designed, was completed after his death.
In 1989 the university finally allowed a portrait of Abele on campus, which he was the primary designer of to 1950. It was the first portrait of an African-American displayed to ever be on the campus.
On August 17, 2012, construction began on Julian Abele Park, at 22nd & Carpenter Streets in Philadelphia.