Durham News

Duke to honor black architect who led campus design

Duke University has begun a process to honor Julian Abele, the African-American architect who led the design of the Duke campus from its original construction in the 1920s through the 1940s.

“Julian Abele envisioned the physical world of Duke University,” President Richard Brodhead said in a news release. “It is time to ensure that his legacy is clearly known so that future generations of students and faculty can be inspired by his genius.”

Abele’s portrait was placed in the lobby of the Allen Building, the university’s main administration building, in 1988. Earlier this year, another portrait was hung in the newly renovated Gothic Reading Room in Rubenstein Library, joining former Duke presidents and board chairs and other university dignitaries, including historian John Hope Franklin, according to the release.

“The original architectural drawings for the proposed campuses of Duke University are true works of art, grand in scale and exquisite in detail,” according to an article in the Duke University Archives (“Julian Abele (1881-1950)” | David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, http://nando.com/32l)

“As was common they are unsigned with the only credit being in the name of the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer, Architect,” the article continues. “The chief designer of the firm and draftsman, Julian F. Abele, in discussing the unique style of the drawings, once proudly proclaimed, ‘The shadows are all mine.’ With that statement Abele unknowingly articulated a central fact of his life. As an African American, he lived in the shadows as time and circumstance conspired to conceal his considerable professional talent.”

Duke students learned about Abele in April 1986 when students protesting for divestment in South Africa built a shanty town on campus. A letter writer to the campus newspaper The Chronicle complained that the ugliness of the crude shelters “violates our rights as students to a beautiful campus,” the article says. In response, graduating senior and Abele’s grandniece Susan Cook, declared that “since the architect of the campus was an African American, he would not have objected to the shanty protest because he was a victim of apartheid in his own country.”

Although widely reported to never have visited the campus he designed because of Jim Crow laws segregating the races, an article footnote indicates this may not actually be the case. An article by Susan E. Tifft in the February 2005 Smithsonian maagzine (http://nando.com/32k) cites two references that suggest Abele did visit Durham.

“In the early 1960s, John H. Wheeler, a prominent black banker in Durham, North Carolina, told George Esser, then executive director of the North Carolina Fund, that he recalled Abele coming to visit the campus during construction” Tifft writes. “What’s more, in a 1989 interview, Henry Magaziner, son of Abele’s friend and Penn classmate Louis Magaziner, recalled Abele telling him that a Durham, North Carolina, hotel had refused to give him a room during a trip to the university, while accommodating his white associate, William Frank.”

Under a process that Brodhead outlined at the Dec. 5 trustees meeting, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III will form an advisory group of students, faculty, alumni and others to recommend how best to recognize Abele’s legacy. Brodhead has asked Trask to report back to him and the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Facilities and Environment at its February 2016 meeting.

In other business:

▪ The trustees approved a master’s degree in international environmental policy for Duke Kunshan University in China. The joint degree program, supported by the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Sanford School of Public Policy, will begin in fall 2017. The four-semester, 16-course program will allow Duke Kunshan students to spend one semester at Duke, as well as create a one-semester program in China for public policy and environment masters students at Sanford and Nicholas. Duke Kunshan has three other master’s degree programs: medical physics, global health and management studies.

▪ The trustees met with Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer. In 2016, Dempsey will be in residence at Duke as a Rubenstein Fellow. In the spring, he will co-teach a course in the Sanford School of Public Policy on American civil-military relations with Duke political scientist Peter Feaver. In the fall, Dempsey will teach a course on management and leadership at The Fuqua School of Business. Dempsey earned a master’s degree in English from Duke in 1984

About Julian Abele

Julian Francis Abele was the first black graduate of what is today the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. Abele, born in Philadelphia on April 30, 1881, was the youngest of eight children born to Charles and Mary Adelaide Jones Abele. Through his mother Adelaide, Julian was a descendant of Reverend Absalom Jones (1746-1818), founder of the Free African Society and of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. After graduating from Penn in 1902 with his degree in architecture, Abele was hired by architect Horace Trumbauer. He spent his entire professional life with Trumbauer’s nationally known firm, almost all of it as chief designer, taking over after Trumbauer's death in 1938. Abele was responsible for the design of such Philadelphia buildings as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Land Title Building (which came to house the offices of Trumbauer's firm), and a number of mansions. In addition to the English Gothic and Georgian buildings at Duke, his projects outside Philadelphia included the Widener Memorial Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and mansions in Newport and New York.

Source: University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center