Mystery of the Master Builder

August 1, 2005

 

"Stones, Bricks, and Faces," Duke Magazine, November-December 1994

Mystery of the Master Builder

By now, it's a well-established fact that Duke's campus was designed by an immensely talented and only posthumously appreciated African-American architect named Julian Francis Abele. His "rediscovery"--and, with it, official recognition of his work by university administrators--came at last in 1988. The following year, the Black Graduate & Professional Student Association initiated an annual awards banquet in his honor and commissioned his oil portrait, which hangs in the main lobby of the Allen Building.

In 1994, Duke Magazine's Bridget Booher '82 took an in-depth look at the Philadelphia-born Abele, who worked for the all-white firm of Horace Trumbauer. Booher charted Abele's improbable rise to professional, if noncredited, success and his enduring legacy in a host of public and private places, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Harvard's Widener Library. But until recently, one detail had eluded the few historians and journalists: Had Abele ever visited Durham? Had he ever actually seen the campus he'd created? It wasn't clear. "His family theorizes that he would not have wanted to travel to the segregated South," reported Booher.

But did he?

That Abele had never seen his masterpiece became the accepted version of events. In If Gargoyles Could Talk by longtime university archivist William E. King '61, A.M. '63, Ph.D. '70, now retired, the story lived on as a bit of urban legend, pointing up the irony of the situation itself: A black man had designed a university he could never attend. And that was what hooked Susan Tifft '73 as she flipped through a friend's copy of King's book before dinner one summer evening in 2002.

"When I read the chapter on Julian Abele, I wondered why I had known nothing about his existence when I was a Duke undergraduate," recalls Tifft, Patterson Professor of the Practice of journalism and public policy at Duke. A former Time magazine editor and co-author of The Trust, the award-winning biography of the family behind The New York Times, she was game for an investigation.

"My first stop was Bill King himself, who warned me it would be tough sledding, mainly because there was so little documentary evidence on [Abele] and his work," she says. But Tifft knew where to look. And after a "good start" in the university archives, she had enough to propose a story to Smithsonian Magazine. From there, she tracked down Abele's descendants, whom she interviewed as a group. She traveled to the University of Pennsylvania, where Abele went to school, and pored over materials at the Athenaeum, a special-collections library devoted to architecture.

Then, after a lengthy search, Tifft found her key source, the only living person she could locate who had actually known Abele, and the only person who could answer the question. Henry Magaziner, son of Abele's friend and classmate Louis Magaziner, recalled Abele's saying that a Durham hotel had refused to give him a room during a visit to the university, but had accommodated his white associate, William Frank.

After her own journey of discovery, Tifft says she came away "newly inspired by this quiet, gifted artist. He left us not only his magnificent buildings, but his own inspiring personal story."