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Julian Abele, the trailblazing Black architect behind Philadelphia's art museum and over 400 buildings

The trailblazing Black architect behind some of Philadelphia's best-known buildings
The trailblazing Black architect behind some of Philadelphia's best-known buildings 03:46

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The grandeur of the 111-year-old Eisenlohr Hall designed by Julian Abele is breathtaking to behold. But the history behind the building nestled along Walnut Street in the heart of University City is even more stunning.

"I mean, it blew my mind," said William Whitaker, curator of architectural archives at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's exceptionally poignant when Julian Abele is someone who, in a sense, worked in the shadows."

READ MORE: CBS News Philadelphia's Black History Month coverage

Eisenlohr Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. CBS News Philadelphia

Julian Abele was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture in 1902, a time when segregation and racism were rampant.

"It's one thing just to get into school," Whitaker said, "but then he was also the best student."

Eisenlohr Hall is now the official home to Penn's president. Whitaker explains, "We know Julian Abele made the shapes, decided on the details of the fireplaces, the crown molding, the casement work around the windows and doors."

As a Black man and the lead architect for one of the city's most prestigious firms in the early 1900s, the Philly native was a true trailblazer, studying in Europe, and was part of the team that executed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Julian Abele (inset) designed the floor plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duke University Archives (inset)/ CBS News Philadelphia

"He did the renderings… he did the floor plans," said David Barquist, the H. Richard Dietrich, Jr. Curator of American Decorative Art at the museum. "He certainly single-handedly showed that someone with talent … could rise to the top of their profession, even if they weren't recognized by name."

Just down the Ben Franklin Parkway is more of Abele's lasting imprint on Philadelphia at the Parkway Central Library, of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

In the library's main hall, you can see more of Abele's incredible talent with the grand staircase, and if you look up you'll also see the intricate ceiling and moldings that he designed with extraordinary and meticulous detail.

"Excellence. He was really, really good at what he did. He was dedicated to it," said Peter Cook, a Washington, D.C.-based architect who was one the lead architects on the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Julian Abele was his great-granduncle.

The Parkway Central Library on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. CBS News Philadelphia

"It's hard not to be in awe and inspired by the immense talent that came from his fingers and his brain," Cook said.

Abele also conceived the plans for the main library on the campus of Harvard and buildings at Duke University. He was known to shy away from the limelight and has only gotten credit in recent years for much of his work.

"To me, that underscores the importance of Black History Month," Cook said. "If we don't boast a little bit on behalf of those people who came before us, then those stories are going to be lost… we've got to be able to tell those stories."

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