Black History Month: Meet the black architect who secretly designed a local landmark

Editor’s note: This story originally posted in Feb. 2017. We are re-posting today in honor of Black History Month.

The temple-like building in downtown West Palm Beach has kept its secret for 90 years.

In the midst of the South’s Jim Crow era of the 1920s — at a time when Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state — a supremely talented but unheralded African-American architect designed one of the city’s most beautiful buildings: the 1928 First Church of Christ, Scientist on Flagler Drive, as well as the northern estates of some of Palm Beach’s best known Gilded Age society families.

His name was Julian Abele (pronounced “Able”), who designed some of America’s most notable buildings while working behind a screen of acceptance from his Philadelphia employer, architect Horace Trumbauer.

“It’s the greatest historical discovery in our community in recent years,” said Harvey Oyer III, an area historian.

Oyer is also an attorney representing CityPlace developer The Related Cos, which proposes to protect the exterior of the un-landmarked church in perpetuity in exchange for permission to build a tiered 25-story office tower on the church’s west side.


Related discovered Abele’s connection to the church, according to Oyer, while compiling research for the company’s proposal, which will require the city to bypass the current 5-story height restriction on property east of Olive Avenue.

The company hopes to persuade the city that its triplet of narrow towers will lend punctuation to the city’s current horizontal skyline.

A researcher at the Palm Beach County Historical Society said Trumbauer is the only name on the church plans in its archives. At the time, it was common practice to use a firm’s name on architectural drawings, without crediting individual architects, say historians.

The tower’s architect, David Childs, who designed One World Trade Center in New York for his firm Skidmore, Owens & Merrill, told the Economic Forum of the Palm Beaches earlier this month that Abele is unmistakably the designer of the church’s graceful, beautifully-proportioned facade.

“We believe his (Abele’s) hand was the leading hand in that building credited to Trumbauer,” said Childs.

The discovery allies the church with some of the country’s most prestigious 20th century buildings.

Since the 1980s, the classically-trained Abele has been belatedly acknowledged as the designer of Duke University in North Carolina, the Widener Library at Harvard University and the Philadelphia Museum of Art building, as well as dozens of other churches, civic buildings and mansions.

Those steps at the Philadelphia museum that Sylvestor Stallone runs up in the first “Rocky” movie? Also designed by Abele, say museum historians.

In fact, the front of the Christian Science church, with its Greek-inspired Ionic columns, mimics two of the facades of the museum, completed three years earlier.

Sophisticated and refined, with a classical education, Abele also designed the northern summer homes of some of early Palm Beach’s society stalwarts including the Stotesbury, Phipps and Dodge families.

“The lines are all Mr. Trumbauer’s,” a self-deprecating Abele once said of one of his designs, “but the shadows are all mine.”

Almost all his career, Abele lived, apparently happily, in Trumbauer’s shadow.

“I don’t think it bothered him a bit,” said Abele’s son, Julian Abele, Jr., 91 and also an architect, who lived in Ocala until a recent move to California. “My father liked to be in the background. He was not one to be in front of the public.”

Born in 1881, Abele came from a prosperous Philadelphia family. At the University of Pennsylvania, he was president of the student architectural society in 1902, the year he became the first black graduate from the architectural school.

“He considered himself an artiste beyond racial classification – neither black nor white,” writes biographer Dreck Spurlock Wilson in his book, “African American Architects, 1865-1945.” “Abele was the living embodiment of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ characterization of “double consciousness: outwardly black, living in White America…”

Abele traveled throughout Europe, visiting Greek, Roman and Renaissance buildings. He spoke fluent French and in middle age, married a French woman.

By 1906, he was working for Trumbauer, who had Philadelphia social connections but who had come up through apprenticeship, not education. In 1909, the formally trained Abele became the firm’s chief designer.

He was in charge of the look and details of every commission, said his son, which would have likely included the West Palm Beach church.

“Dad was chief architect. He would have been responsible for any design that went out of the office. It’s more than likely that he actually did the design himself,” he said.

Trumbauer needed Abele to create the French chateaux and Engish manor houses his Social Register clients wanted; Abele needed Trumbauer’s name for acceptance.

“Trumbauer was the rainmaker, the face person, but the architectural genius behind it was Julian Abele. It’s evidenced by his position in the company and the fact that he directed the firm after Trumbauer’s death,” said Oyer. “That discovery changed this from being a beautiful piece of architecture to a building of national historic significance.”

The church referred requests for comment to its attorney, as negotiations with Related are ongoing. It has refused to pursue landmark status for its building in the past, a designation many owners fear will restrict their property’s future uses.

When the West Palm Beach church was built, the Christian Science religion, whose members believe that prayer has the power to heal illness, was the fastest growing in the U.S. Church membership has declined in recent decades. Today, the West Palm Beach church has less than 75 members.

Marjorie Merriweather Post, who built Mar-a-Lago, was a Christian Science member who attended the West Palm Beach church. Anne Phipps, wife of steel mogul Henry Phipps, Jr., and Amy Phipps (Mrs. Frederick Guest) donated construction funds.

Records from Trumbauer’s firm were lost, so historians may never know if America’s industrial aristocracy understood that their real architect, their revered master of European Beaux Arts architecture, was a black man.

Author Wilson says Abele designed two Phipps country estates in New York: the Henry C. Phipps’ home in Great Neck and the John S. Phipps house in Westbury.

Eva Stotesbury, the first queen of Palm Beach who hired Addison Mizner to built her El Mirasol mansion, hired the Trumbauer firm, and by extension, Abele, to design Whitemarsh Hall in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. The 1921 English Georgian mansion, now razed, was once the third-largest home in the country and Eva’s wedding present.

Anna Dodge, heiress to the Dodge car fortune, once owned Playa Riente, Mizner’s mammoth Palm Beach masterpiece. During the Great Depression, she hired the Trumbauer firm to design Rose Terrace, a gigantic French chateau, now demolished, which rose on the side of a lake in Grosse Point Woods, Michigan.

After the firm designed a Fifth Avenue mansion for James Duke, he hired Trumbauer & Associates in 1924 to create the plans for his university in Durham, North Carolina. It became Abele’s largest, most long-lasting commission. He was still designing Duke buildings when he died in 1950, 11 years before he could have attended the formerly whites-only university.

Today, the school, which prominently displays Abele’s portrait, has renamed its main quad for its architect.

Abele’s son thinks his father did visit Durham once to see the work that consumed much of his life, but is skeptical that he ever came to West Palm Beach to see the Christian Science church. During segregation, blacks had to change into segregated train cars at the Mason-Dixon line.

“He wouldn’t gotten on a train to come down, he would never have done that. He had light brown skin and was a very distinguished looking person so he could have avoided the Jim Crow laws, but he would not have gone down as an African American. He wasn’t going to subject himself to any Jim Crow,” said Abele, Jr.

By the time Abele died in 1950, he had designed more than 250 buildings, but he and the firm’s engineer only put their names on plans after they took over the firm following Trumbauer’s death in 1938.

He wasn’t invited to join the American Institute of Architects until 1942, eight years before his death and 36 years after he’d begun creating the look of many of America’s enduring civic institutions, including a lovely West Palm Beach church.

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