Everyone reading my blog has probably heard of Duke University. It’s a world-renowned university located in Durham, North Carolina. You might not know of its meager beginnings, and you might not know that the architect responsible for its magnificent West Campus was a black man.
I’ve lived in North Carolina my entire life, and I only recently learned who Julian Francis Abele was.
First, here’s a very brief early history of the university.
In 1838, a subscription-supported school called Brown’s Schoolhouse was established in the Randolph County community of Trinity. The school’s name changed a couple of times over the years but was settled as Trinity College in 1859.
In 1892, Trinity College moved to Durham, North Carolina. With heavy financial support from Washington Duke and Julian S. Carr – both Methodists – the name was changed to Duke in December 1924. That was then James B. Duke, son of Washington Duke, established The Duke Endowment. It was a $40 million trust fund set up for its interest to be divided between various hospitals, orphanages, the Methodist Church, three colleges, and the university to be built around Trinity College. In today’s dollars, the $40 million endowment would be equivalent to more than $630 million.
But what did Julian Francis Abele have to do with this?
Julian Francis Abele was born April 30, 1881 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – so this Saturday will be the 141st anniversary of his birth. In 1902, Abele was the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. All four years of undergraduate school there, Abele worked in the mornings as a designer at the Louis Hickman Architectural Firm and took afternoon and evening classes at the university.
Horace Trumbauer, a nationally-recognized Philadelphia architect, hired Abele. He sent Abele to study abroad for three years. Upon returning from Europe in 1906, Abele joined Trumbauer’s firm and by 1909 had become the company’s chief designer. When Trumbauer died in 1938, Abele became head of the company.
The company designed numerous buildings in Philadelphia, a number of mansions in Newport and New York, and the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University.
But my interest in writing about Julian Francis Abele today is his contributions to the gorgeous English Gothic and Georgian buildings at Duke University. Over the 30-year period of 1924 to 1954, he was the primary designer of the university’s West Campus.
If you’ve not had the pleasure of visiting Duke University…
Photographs of the buildings on the Duke University campus don’t do justice to the beauty of the architecture. The centerpiece of the campus and grandest example of Julian Francis Abele’s work is Duke Chapel.
“Chapel” in this case is an understatement, for the chapel is more of a cathedral than a chapel in the common sense of the word. The chapel interior is 63 feet wide, 291 feet long, and the nave proper is 73 feet tall.
Standing on the highest point on the planned campus in 1925, James B. Duke said that it was on that place that the chapel should be built. It would be the highest point and the center of the campus. The cornerstone was laid in 1930, and it is said that students enjoyed watching the stone cutters and the progression of construction of the chapel over the next two years. Little did those white students know that the chief designer of the edifice was a black man.
In fact, it wasn’t until Julian Francis Abele’s granddaughter, Susan Cook, brought to public light in 1986 that a person of color had designed the magnificent focal point of the Duke campus. While students protested apartheid in South Africa, Susan Cook wrote a letter to the student newspaper to make it known that her grandfather had designed their beloved West Campus.
Portraits of Abele now hang in the main administration building on campus and in the Gothic Reading Room in Rubenstein Library alongside those of former Duke presidents and board chairs. In 2016, and the main quadrangle on campus, which stretches from the Clocktower Quad to the Davison Quad – and to the Chapel Quad – was named the Abele Quad.
As quoted from https://today.duke.edu/2016/03/abele, upon the naming of the Abele Quad in 2016, Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead said, “Julian Abele brought the idea of Duke University to life. It is an astonishing face that, in the deepest days of racial segregation, a black architect designed the beauty of this campus. Now, everyone who lives, works, studies and visits the heart of Duke’s campus will be reminded of Abele’s role in its creation.”
Shocking to our 21st century minds, is the fact that the racial prejudices of the early- and mid-20th century deterred Mr. Abele from visiting the Duke University campus to see his designs come to fruition and caused him not to be admitted to the American Institute of Architects until 1942.
Mr. Abele died in Philadelphia on April 23, 1950, which was 72 years ago this past Saturday.
Visit Duke University in person or virtually
If you’re ever zipping along on Interstates 40 or 85 in Durham, take several hours to leave the hustle and bustle behind and visit the Duke University campus. Duke Chapel is open every day from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Stroll around the campus and be sure to visit the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. (Visit https://gardens.duke.edu/ for information about parking and what’s in bloom.)
Visit https://chapel.duke.edu/about-chapel/history-architecture to take a virtual tour of the Duke University campus and to watch a tour of Duke Chapel. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on the links to various aspects of the chapel to learn more about the 77 stained-glass windows, the portal, the carillon, and the four pipe organs (including the diminutive 2014 153-wooden pipe positive organ that can be moved about within the chapel for small concerts.
Since my last blog post
I continue not to be at my best, but as energy allows I work on my novel, read, or do online research.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read.
Remember the people of Ukraine and count your blessings.