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The Discovery of an Architect: Duke University and Julian F. Abele

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2009
pp. 6-21 | 10.1353/scu.0.0041

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In 1937, the English novelist Aldous Huxley described "a pleasant but unexciting land" when "all of a sudden, astonishingly, a whole city of gray Gothic stone emerged from the warm pine forest." Duke's West Campus, courtesy of Duke University Photography.

In 1937, a distinguished visitor touring the United States, the English novelist Aldous Huxley, was traveling through North Carolina by auto one hot summer day. He described "a pleasant but unexciting land" when "all of a sudden, astonishingly, a whole city of gray Gothic stone emerged from the warm pine forest." He was thrilled by the "academic city" with the dominating "leaping tower" of the huge cathedral and the "spreading succession of quadrangles." He called the campus "genuinely beautiful, the most successful essay in neo-Gothic that I know."1 Huxley, like generations of succeeding travelers, had come upon the campus of Duke University. Like most visitors through the years, Huxley was unaware that the dramatic new campus had been designed by the architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia, where Julian F. Abele, an African American, was chief designer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer devoted only three paragraphs to Abele's death in 1950, but it covered a weekend of celebration honoring him in June 2002, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Free Library of Philadelphia, at which Abele [pronounced "able"] received posthumous credit for the design of the central section. During the construction of Duke University in the 1920s a few administrators knew Abele was chief designer in the firm, but his race was not common knowledge. By 2000, however, Abele and his achievements as an African American were the centerpiece of the university's seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. How these celebrations came to be is a story of unusual interest.

Neither the Trumbauer firm nor Julian Abele left an archive. Scattered sources, infrequent newspaper articles, and reminiscences by family and friends created over decades constitute the primary sources of information about Abele. His story was one discovered bit by bit, looking backward. The Duke University component, outlined in this essay, was an exercise in archival practice and historical discovery over time.2

Julian Francis Abele (1881–1950) was born into a respected and talented African American family in Philadelphia. His father, born a freedman, worked in the U.S. Treasury Customs House and thus had the means to give his children a valued education. In 1897 Abele graduated from Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth, a prestigious Quaker institution, where his Aunt Julia Jones, who taught drawing, steered him toward a career in architecture. In 1898 he earned a Certificate in Architectural Design from the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts. In 1902, Abele graduated from the School of Architecture of the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1903, he received a Certificate of Completion in Architectural Design from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In the latter three institutions Abele was the first of his race to earn a certificate or a degree, a magnificent achievement, though, as Abele noted later in his life, "I lived in the shadows." The shadows of practice, custom, and personality would claim Abele for decades.3


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Julian Francis Abele (here) earned a Certificate in Architectural Design from the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts in 1898, graduated from the School of Architecture of the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, and a year later received a Certificate of Completion in Architectural Design from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Yet, later reflecting on his career, he said, "I lived in the shadows." Portrait from "Construction of Duke University, 1924–1932," University Archives, Duke University.

Horace Trumbauer (1868–1938), a Philadelphia native, was heard to say, "I hire my brains." Acknowledged as a premier builder of Gilded Age palaces, often in the grand French style, Trumbauer had no higher education, having dropped out of school in his teens. He learned the profession as an apprentice draftsman and through voracious reading. When he began his own firm in 1890, he hired exceptionally qualified personnel and held them to very high standards. Extremely self-conscious about his lack of education, he deliberately sought anonymity, preferring...



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