Nicknamed "Willing and Able" in his senior-class yearbook for the Penn School of Design, Julian Abele - pronounced "able" - was an overachiever.
When he graduated from the School in 1902, Abele was president of the Penn Architectural Society, the recipient of numerous architectural awards and was poised to join one of Philadelphia's top architectural firms.
But something else made him truly stand out from his Penn classmates: Abele was black.
Abele's place in the Penn history books is clear - he was the first African American to graduate with a degree in architecture from Penn.
Within his professional career, though, his legacy is not simply about race - and it is surrounded by some significant uncertainties.
Abele worked in a firm in which no architect received credit, making it difficult to know the extent and nature of his work on buildings in the city.
And while he must have known that he was the first black Architecture graduate at Penn, historians and leaders within the black community admit that Abele was not, in any respect, a vocal civil-rights activist.
Even the Penn community struggles to honor him. While he is acknowledged as the first black Architecture graduate, his uninvolvement in early civil-rights advocacy - as well as the uncertainty about what he designed - has left him relatively unmentioned in both School of Design and African American history courses.
The School of Design's Black Student Alliance is among the few groups trying to raise Abele's profile, instituting a scholarship for high-school students in Abele's name.
But such gestures have been few and far between. Most agree Abele was the first great black architect in America - they say the problem is no one knows it.
The Red and Blue meets a black architect
According to records from the Penn archives, Abele was born on April 30, 1881. F.J. Dallet, the University historian from 1971-1984, wrote that he "belonged to one of the city's most talented and ambitious families of color."
Abele had an innate talent for design. A 1928 Penn Architecture alumnus and later colleague of Abele's, F. Spencer Roach, said in an interview with Dallet that the senior class's election of Abele as president of the Architectural Society was "the highest honor his classmates could accord him."
While the records indicate that Abele was highly respected during his time at Penn, current University historian Mark Frazier Lloyd notes that "that's not to say he didn't struggle with the institution of racism."
Although Penn had been admitting students of color since 1879, the number of minority students at the turn of the century was limited, as was the case across the nation, Lloyd said.
In 1906, Abele joined the architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer, at the time one of the most prestigious in Philadelphia. Just three years later, he became chief designer, in 1909.
But while subsequent Penn alumni who worked as architects in Philadelphia, like the noted Louis Kahn, were publicly acknowledged for their work, Abele's contributions to Philadelphia are unclear - Trumbauer, known for his large ego, put his name on all designs that came from his staff members, regardless of their race.
The unknown hand
Trumbauer's policy has left modern scholars unsure of who designed what.
Through sketches from that time, though, many believe Abele was the uncredited hand behind the designs of a number of the firms' major projects.
After Trumbauer died in 1938, Abele emerged from the shadows; his later works - especially at Duke University - are well-known, since Abele actually signed the drawings. But his exact role in earlier projects remains a mystery.
The Penn President's House, built circa 1911, is one such project. While Abele has never officially been credited as the lead architect, University President Amy Gutmann said "his initials are on all the architectural renderings of the house."
According to Dallet's research, Abele is also considered the chief architect of the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University.
Many believe his most important uncredited design was for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which began construction in 1919, according to Museum records.
It is technically unknown who from Trumbauer's firm was chosen as the chief designer. Debate on this subject continues today: Recent articles about the Museum's decision to hire controversial architect Frank Gehry to conduct renovations range from calling Abele the primary architect to not mentioning him at all.
But many signs point to the former. Certain drawings of the Museum are attributed to Abele. A New Observer article about Abele from 1983 also states that, prior to construction, Abele was sent to Greece to study architecture, culminating in the ancient Greco-style of the Museum today.
Despite the evidence, however, any credit given to Abele during his time in Philadelphia always comes with a caveat.
As a result, honoring Abele as an architect involves looking at the big picture - rather than focusing on individual projects, where his input is still disputed - said Michael Spain, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects' Philadelphia branch.
And Carlton Smith, the group's national president, said that, when Abele's aesthetic sense is considered, "we see that he wasn't a one-shot wonder."
Buildings are color-blind
If little is known for sure about Abele's contributions as an architect in Philadelphia, even less is known about how he saw himself with respect to the rest of the African American community.
And while there is no evidence that Abele experienced discrimination at Penn, it has been well documented that Abele never visited the numerous buildings at Duke he designed as a result of segregation.
Spain said the elite black community in Philadelphia was "aware of what he did, but, as for it being trumpeted, I doubt that happened."
To Smith, Abele's success was, in itself, a way to fight racism.
"He found a way to deal with adversities without getting on a soapbox and making a lot of noise," Smith said. "Although I wish he had."
Efforts today to memorialize Abele's contributions as an African-American pioneer are slowly materializing.
School of Design Black Student Alliance co-chairwoman and second-year Architecture student LaToya Nelson said she hopes the BSA's scholarship, named after Abele, will encourage more minority students to consider a career in architecture.
Even though Abele himself never publicly championed civil rights, "the fact that Julian Abele accomplished the magnitude of projects during that time period, when racial tension was much more severe, is inspirational to us students now," Nelson said.
Penn could also do more to raise his profile in the academic sphere, she added, saying that his name has yet to be mentioned in any of her classes.
Smith said he hopes emerging minority architects learn from Abele's story that "things are slow to change, and, if we don't continue to do something about it, it will never change."Comments powered by Disqus
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