Philadelphia Museum of Art

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | C.1876

Photo Credit: Sara Rhoades

The steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art were forever iconicized in cinema – and collective culture – during Rocky Balboa’s triumphant ascent in the 1976 film “Rocky”. The steps, which open up onto the city’s Ben Franklin Parkway, were designed by African American architect Julian Abele.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) was established in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia. Yet, the museum building atop Fairmount hill wasn’t developed until 1907 and completed 21 years later. Architecture firms Horace Trumbauer and Zantziger, Borie, and Medary collaborated on the final design which is credited to two architects: Howell Lewis Shay (building plan and massing) and Julian Abele (detail work and perspective drawings).

A Philadelphia native, Abele was the first African American student to graduate from University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Architecture, now known as Penn’s School of Design. After graduating in 1902, he spent some time in Washington state to design a house for his sister before joining Horace Trumbauer as the assistant to the chief designer, Frank Seeburger.

In 1909, Seeburger left the firm and Abele advanced to chief designer — two years into the development of PMA. In 1914, the design process officially began. While Shay is credited with the building plan for PMA, the final perspective drawings are in Abele’s distinctive hand. Along with the front steps, the Museum’s exterior terrace, building stone, and classical Greek temple columns at the Museum’s entrance are credited to Abele.

Abele continued to co-head Trumbauer and joined the American Institute of Architects in 1942. Along with the PMA, his design legacy includes many campus buildings of Duke University.

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