In celebration of Black History Month, Spaces, Inc. takes a look at one of the most influential African-American architects in US history. Julian Abele was born in 1881 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The youngest of eight children, Abele was surrounded by success. His brothers were engineers, doctors, and artisans who always pushed their youngest sibling towards greatness. Abele became the first African-American to ever graduate from the University of Pennsylvania when he received his degree in architecture in 1902. His outstanding academic pursuits at Penn found him a sponsor, Horace Trumbauer, who funded a three-year tenure in Paris where Abele became fluent in the French language and earned his Diplome D’architecte in 1905.
After finishing his education, Abele joined Trumbauer’s highly acclaimed firm, The Horace Trumbauer Company. Abele’s passion for art, as well as Gothic and Parisian influences, can be seen throughout his designs. One characteristic that set Abele apart from other designers of the time was his equal attention to both the exterior and interior of the buildings he designed. Abele later traveled to Greece in 1919 to study the country’s historic sites and utilize their styles in his work. The recipient of many national commissions, Abele is most known for his design of the Philadelphia Art Museum and the campus of Duke University.
Today, Duke University is one the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the United States. Back in the early 1900’s, the school was largely funded by tobacco magnate, James Buchanan Duke. That said, despite Duke’s ample financing, there existed a rather disjointed series of buildings on campus. After having worked with Abele to design his homes in and around New York City, Duke asked Abele and the Horace Trumbauer Company to design a more unified campus at his school in Durham, North Carolina.
Abele is credited with designing Cameron Indoor Stadium, the famous basketball arena on campus, as well as the medical school, hospital and various other buildings. They follow a neo-gothic style with incredible attention to detail, inside and outside of each building. One of the unique aspects of Abele’s Duke commission is that while Abele designed numerous buildings on campus, he would never have been allowed to attend the university as a student. It wasn’t until 1961 that the university allowed the first African-American students on campus. Due to the racial tensions in North Carolina, Abele wasn’t even allowed to sign his name to any of the buildings he designed for the school until Trumbauer passed away in 1938 and Abele became the principal architect at the firm.
Before his death in 1950, after years of innovation in the field, Abele was finally admitted to American Institution of Architects in 1942. Abele’s contributions to the field of architecture and the African-American community are unrivaled and his contributions the design of institutions of higher education will continue to be marveled for centuries.