Truly Abele

By Deborah Bolling

Julian Francis Abele may be the most famous architect you’ve never heard of.

As libraries throughout the region participate in "One Book, One Philadelphia" -- the project that asks residents to collectively read Lorene Cary's The Price of a Child, a Philadelphia-based story examining America's pre-Civil War racial attitudes -- probably relatively few are aware that the chief designer of the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, built in 1917, was a Black architect named Julian Francis Abele.

A South Philly native, in 1904 Abele was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania's architecture program. Today, because of his voluminous contributions, Abele is regarded as the premier African-American architect in the country.

Hired by the prestigious architectural firm Horace Trumbauer & Associates in 1906 and promoted to chief designer in 1908, Abele is credited with designing 650 buildings nationwide during his 44-year career. His resume reads like an architectural digest of some of the country's finest structures. In addition to being recognized as the main designer for the Philadelphia Free Library, Abele also earned that distinction for his work on the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the main branch of the Philadelphia YMCA (at Broad and Arch); Girard Trust at Broad and Chestnut (now the Ritz-Carlton hotel); the Beneficial Savings Bank at 12th and Chestnut; the Corn Exchange Bank (now the home of City Paper) at Second and Chestnut; several Hahnemann University Hospital buildings; Belmont Park racetrack; the Vanderbilt mansion in Great Neck, N.Y.; Harvard University's Widener Library and the entire main campus of Duke University in North Carolina -- to name just a few.

Abele's only surviving son, also named Julian, says that as far he knows, U.S. segregation policies prevented his father from ever setting foot on the whites-only Duke campus he designed. In 1988, Abele's portrait was hung in the foyer of Duke's Allen Building, making him the first Black ever to be so honored. The younger Abele, who now lives in Ocala, Florida, says his memories of his father are as a dedicated parent and a generous provider.

"My parents broke up when my sister and I were very young," Abele Jr., 76, recalls. His mother, Marguerite Bulle, was a white Frenchwoman, who he says walked away from the family. "My father raised us on his own, right there on 15th and Christian streets. At that time, it was a community full of Black professionals. Every year, we summered down the shore -- and, of course, we always had the help of nannies and a cook."

Abele Jr. says that although his father had impressive achievements, and was very well paid by the Trumbauer firm, he was a taciturn and modest man. As a student at Penn, Abele was esteemed by his peers and professors. On the recommendation of a dean, Horace Trumbauer sent Abele to Paris to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts after his Penn graduation, and hired Abele upon his return. While Trumbauer was a high-profile businessman, Abele remained fairly inconspicuous, usually staying in the office to work on his drawings. Reviewing his designs, and taking into account the impact of racism on his career, Abele once quipped, "the shadows are all mine." He died in South Philly in April of 1950 at the age of 68. "We didn't really talk about [his career] much as a big thing," Abele Jr. says. "It wasn't a topic of daily conversation. But my cousin, Julian Abele Cook, was an architect, too. He designed Howard University and he talked about my father a lot." Abele Jr., a retired architectural engineer, says that although there aren't large numbers of Black architects in America, his family produced architects for three generations.

Based on records at the main headquarters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 700 African Americans are currently members; they represent approximately 1 percent of the entire membership. In 1942, after the death of Horace Trumbauer, Abele became head of the firm. That same year, he was also elected to the Philadelphia chapter of the AIA, becoming its first Black member after four decades of contributions.

"I don't know why there aren't more Black architects in the country," Abele Jr. says. "For some odd reason, it's an occupation that doesn't have that much of an allure for Black people. I can't explain it."

John Claypool, executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the AIA, says that the profession historically has always been comprised of a "bunch of white guys with bowties."

"I wouldn't hesitate to indicate that like a lot of other professions, we need more diversity in our ranks," Claypool says. "But, over the years, we have made a lot of strides -- including having more women in the profession."

Claypool says that there are 1,500 members in his chapter, but no records are kept which indicate race or gender. He was unable to say how many in that number are, in fact, African American. However, according to the National Organization of Minority Architects, Black certified architects in Philadelphia numbered less than 25 at last count. 

Given the times, the irony of Abele's success is as bold as his buildings. And while he received little to no recognition during his stellar, but unlikely, career, his contributions to this city are sure to long outlive the attitudes that made him a big man in his field, if only in the shadows.


DAG Forum essays do not represent the opinion of the DAG Steering Committee, rather those of the individual authors, who seek to broaden our perspective of critical issues that require thoughtful responses.