Meet the Black Architect Who Designed Duke University 37 Years Before He Could Have Attended It

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tags: architecture, Duke University, Black Architect



In 1902, when Julian F. Abele graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in architecture, he was the school's first-ever black graduate. The debonair Philadelphia-born architect went on to design hundreds of elegant public institutions, Gilded Age mansions, and huge swathes of a prestigious then-whites-only university's campus. Yet the fact that an African-American architect worked on so many significant Beaux Arts-inspired buildings along the East Coast was virtually unknown until a political protest at Duke, the very university whose gracious campus he largely designed, was held in 1986. 

Abele's contributions were not exactly hidden—during that era it was not customary to sign one's own designs— but neither were they publicized. When he died in 1950, after more than four decades as the chief designer at the prolific Philadelphia-based firm of Horace Trumbauer, very few people outside of local architectural circles were familiar with his name or his work. In 1942, when the long-practicing architect finally gained entry to the American Institute of Architects, the director of Philadelphia's Museum of Art, a building which Abele helped conceive in a classical Greek style, called him "one of the most sensitive designers anywhere in America."

The protests at Duke that ended up reviving his reputation had nothing to do with Abele's undeserved obscurity; they were protests against the racist regime in apartheid South Africa. Duke students were infuriated by the school's investments in the country, and built shanties in front of the university's winsome stone chapel, which was modeled after England's Canterbury Cathedral. One student (perhaps majoring in missing the point) wrote an editorial for the college paper complaining about the shacks, which she said violated "our rights as students to a beautiful campus." 

Unbeknownst to even the university's administrators, Julian F. Abele's great-grandniece was a sophomore at the college in Durham, North Carolina. Knowing full well that her relative had designed the institution's neo-Gothic west campus and unified its Georgian east campus, Susan Cook wrote into the student newspaper contending that Abele would have supported the divestment rally in front of his beautiful chapel. Her great grand-uncle, who in addition to the chapel designed Duke's library, football stadium, gym, medical school, religion school, hospital, and faculty houses, "was a victim of apartheid in this country" yet the university itself was an example "of what a black man can create given the opportunity," she wrote. Cook asserted that Abele had created their splendid campus, but had never set foot on it due to the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South....




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