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Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938)

Horace Trumbauer, ca. 1890Born in the Frankford section of Philadelphia in 1868, Horace Trumbauer quit school at age fourteen to enter the architecture profession as an errand boy at G. W. and W. D. Hewitt's prominent Philadelphia firm. Advancing quickly, he was soon promoted to draftsman. After accumulating valuable experience, in 1890 he set out on his own, opening an office at 310 Chestnut Street. According to Trumbauer historian Frederick Platt, the architect received $171.75 for his first commission, a house near Narberth, Pennsylvania for Mrs. A. M. Walker. Soon afterward, he landed his first major commission, designing a mansion in Glenside for sugar baron William Welsh Harrison. When Harrison's mansion burned to the ground in 1893, the businessman again commissioned Trumbauer, who created Grey Towers (now part of Arcadia University), an enormous, crenellated, castle-like mansion that marks the architect's ascendance to prominence in the profession.

Within a few years of completing Grey Towers, Grey Tower, residence of William W. Harrison, Glenside, PA, 1894Trumbauer's firm, which became known for its elegant homes for America's elite, was flourishing. For several decades, until the stock market crashed in 1929, Trumbauer enjoyed what his stepdaughter called "the big money years." In the 1890s, Trumbauer, chief designer Frank Seeburger, and the other members of the growing office planned large country houses for the wealthy, smaller suburban houses for developers like Wendell & Smith, the creators of Overbrook Farms, and even several buildings for Willow Grove Amusement Park. Portrait of Peter A.B. Widener, c. 1900While working at the amusement park, Trumbauer developed lucrative relationships with its proprietors, the Widener and Elkins families, for whom he would complete numerous important commissions. Significantly, traction magnate Peter A. B. Widener, the family patriarch and vice president of the Free Library's Board of Trustees, was instrumental in Trumbauer's receipt of the main Free Library commission in 1911.

In 1903, Trumbauer married Sara Thomson Williams. For his new family, which included Sara's daughter Agnes Helena, Trumbauer erected a home in the Wynnefield section, on the western edge of the city. There, he enjoyed gardening and collecting architecture books and antiques. Residence at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-eighth Street, New York, NY 1909In the first years of the new century, Trumbauer's firm expanded its scope, designing not only mansions for the rich in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport, Rhode Island, but also apartment houses and other large structures. The first, the St. James Apartments on the southeast corner of Thirteenth and Chestnut Streets, was erected in 1902.

Over the next decades, Trumbauer and his staff, who executed more than one thousand commissions, would add office and school buildings, theaters, hospitals, club houses, churches, libraries, museums, and other building types to their ever expanding repertoire. By 1904, when the prominent Architectural Record published a lengthy account of Trumbauer's work, the self-educated architect had become one of the country's most distinguished. Yet, because he worked exclusively in period styles, reviving the architecture of distant times and places, Trumbauer's celebrity did not persist into the mid twentieth century, when critics enamored with European Modernism valued architecture that renounced all historical precedents.

After World War I and the completion of Whitemarsh Hall, Edward T. Stotesbury's tremendous palace outside Philadelphia, Trumbauer built fewer mansions for the nouveau riche. Opening dinner menu frontispiece, the Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, January 13, 1925In this period, his commission list included growing numbers of office buildings like the Public Ledger Building, hotels like the colossal Ben Franklin and Chateau Crillon, Jefferson Hospital Curtis Clinic, 1930and medical buildings like Jefferson Hospital's Curtis Clinic and Hahneman Medical College. With collaborators Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, he also erected the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art. Among his most important commissions of the period was the Gothic Revival Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina.

With changing tastes and the Great Depression, Trumbauer's practice dwindled in the 1930s and his staff fell from a high of about 30 members to his longtime associate Julian Abele and a few others. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Trumbauer died on September 18, 1938. Honorary pallbearers at his funeral included George D. and Joseph E. Widener, architect Charles L. Borie Jr., eminent art dealer Joseph Duveen, and Duke University's Frank C. Brown. Denigrated by modernists for his preference for revival styles, Trumbauer, one of the most accomplished architects of the Gilded Age, was neither appreciated nor understood until the end of the twentieth century, when architects and historians looked back and explored their rich heritage.

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