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Architectural plan for Widener Library
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Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/HPAC

It is widely known that Harry Widener (Vita, May-June 2019, page 44) had a memorably unsuccessful experience boating—on the Titanic. Barely known is the role that African-American architect Julian Abele had in creating the eponymous library, in his capacity as chief designer in the Office of Horace Trumbauer, the name architect for the project.

Abele is now getting some overdue credit, thanks to a gemlike display in the dome of the library, assembled by Kate Donovan, associate librarian for public services in Houghton Library and curator of the Widener Memorial Collection. (Kudos to the news office’s senior writer, Colleen Walsh, and photographer, Stephanie B. Mitchell, for bringing the exhibition to the community’s attention.) Beyond rectifying the unjust neglect of Abele’s work, the drawings themselves and their setting (when accessible again) may cause visitors to reinterpret the building itself. Its mass, hunkered down in Harvard Yard, is its overwhelming feature—but inside and out, it is finely and delicately decorated in many pleasing ways.

The front elevation of December 23, 1912, shown here, is not definitively from Abele’s hand. Nonetheless, the detail atop the columns merits amused attention: “INSCRIPTION HERE NOT TO EXCEED FIFTY LETTERS A.D. MCMXII.” As contemporary observers can attest, the stonecutters in the end had to chisel only 44—something anyone passing by can see even while the libraries are closed.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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