Internationally known, Horace Trumbauer achieved considerable success after rather modest beginnings in the architectural profession. Born in Philadelphia, young Trumbauer attended the public schools of Philadelphia until he was 16 years old. Then, deciding that he wanted to become an architect, he left school to begin an apprenticeship in the thriving office of G. W. and W. D. Hewitt
. There he remained until 1890, gaining important residential design experience, especially since extensive work for the Houston estate in Chestnut Hill was on the boards of the firm during his stay with them. In fact, this experience during his formative years in the profession might have influenced Trumbauer to seek work from the great entrepreneurial client. Certainly the scale of many of his later efforts could be compared to the palatial residences designed by the Hewitts, such as "Druim Moir" for H. H. Houston and the later residence for George Boldt.
However, when the young Trumbauer first established his own office at 310 Chestnut Street, he launched his work with a series of designs for the builders Wendell & Smith, with comfortable, but more modest houses in Pelham, St. Davids, Wayne, Overbrook Farms, Germantown, and Essex Falls, NJ. (Many of these designs were published by the Scientific American's Builders Edition, an invaluable tool for research into the work of architects associated with developers at this time.) In only four years he would move on from Wendell & Smith to the kind of client with whom he is most associated. By 1894 he was already designing "Gray Towers" for William Welsh Harrison in Glenside, PA (later Beaver College, now Arcadia University), using a crenellated style reminiscent of the Hewitts' "Drum Moir." Other large residences soon followed, including "Chelton House" in Elkins Park, PA, for George W. Elkins (1896), "Lynnewood Hall" in Elkins Park for P. A. B. Widener (1898), "The Elms" for Edward J. Berwind in Newport, RI (1899), and "Chetwode" for William S. Wells (1900), also in Newport. It is apparent from this list that Trumbauer was not confined to the Philadelphia area, but instead he sought and successfully claimed wealthy clients from all across the country, often beginning with residential work for them, but then expanding into designs for their philanthropic ventures.
Over his many years of activity Trumbauer employed a number of gifted designers, including Frank Seeburger (usually cited as chief designer for "Gray Towers"), Charles Rabenold (later of Seeburger & Rabenold fame), and Julian Abele, the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture. Trumbauer favored University of Pennsylvania graduates and often snagged them immediately after their graduation. Following Abele's admission to the firm in 1906 and Seeburger's departure in 1909, Trumbauer's designs emphasized French 17th and 18th-century detail and style more often, and it was also during this time that he formed working relationships with both Jacques Greber and Carlhian et Fils, the French interior design firm. It would be a mistake, however, to state that Trumbauer's projects only reflected French-influenced styles. He was equally at home with the Georgian and Tudor revival styles so popular during the years of his practice. Nor was his practice limited to country houses for the wealthy. He also produced city houses (Percy Belmont residence, Washington, DC, 1907; James B. Duke residence, New York City, 1909), hotels (St. James Hotel, Philadelphia, 1904; Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Philadelphia, 1912), hospitals (Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, 1928), academic buildings (Duke University campuses, 1924-38; Irvine Auditorium, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1926), and institutional buildings (Widener Memorial Training School for Crippled Children, Philadelphia, 1902-14). Although he is not traditionally associated with commercial and religious architecture, his office also provided Philadelphia's Public Ledger Building (1924) and St. Catherine's Chapel, Spring Lake, NJ (1901).
Little can be found in Trumbauer's work of the Arts and Crafts principles or Quaker restraint often associated with the Philadelphia School of residential architects operating in the early twentieth century (see, for example, the work of Wilson Eyre, Duhring, Okie & Ziegler, or Mellor & Meigs.) Their kind of design was characterized as "the demure respectable local tradition" in the Architectural Record article on Trumbauer of February 1904. His architectural designs relate more closely to the work of New York firms such as Carrere & Hastings or McKim, Mead & White. Again from the 1904 Architectural Record: "If his work lacks the very decided individuality which has hitherto marked the better class of work in Philadelphia, it is at the same time free from all eccentricity. It is never crude. It conforms successfully to the prevalent standards of educated architects. His work exhibits the eclectic facility which is one of the characteristics of the modern American architect. Indeed, perhaps, it is this facile response to the current mode as much at home with the 'classic' as with the Elizabethan or the Old Colonial that is responsible for the absence of any very strong personal qualities. . . . That this impersonality, accompanied by the good qualities of sobriety, accuracy and good taste, should have come out of Philadelphia, is not only a matter for astonishment, but for congratulation." In 1904 Trumbauer's work was amply supported by a coterie of wealthy clients.
Although the Depression caused some reversals in his country house practice, in 1930 his work on the Philadelphia Museum of Art was just winding down, and by 1932 he was occupied by the Wildenstein Art Gallery in New York City. Although it might be surmised that Trumbauer's wealthy clients would desert him during the Depression, the thirties found him continuing work on Duke University in Durham, NC, and designing mausolea for E. J. Berwind and Thomas Devlon, both in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. In fact, at the time of his death in 1938, the office was still employed on the Sklar Auditorium at Hahneman Medical College and the Graduate Dormitory and Private Patients Building at Duke University.
Perhaps due to professional envy in the Philadelphia community, Trumbauer never received medals of achievement from the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA, but he was the recipient of an honorary M.A. in Architecture from Harvard University in 1915 and the First Prize awarded at the Third Pan American Congress of Architects in 1927. Although he might have been regarded as "old school" by the younger members of Philadelphia's residential design community, Trumbauer was internationally recognized as an architectural designer. Honorary pall bearers at his funeral included Charles L. Borie, Jr. and George D. Widener, both of Philadelphia, Dr. France C. Brown of Durham, NC, Sir William Duveen, London, England, and Andre Carlhian, Paris, France.
No firm actually succeeded the Trumbauer office, but Julian Abele and William O. Frank, both longtime employees, did continue and complete the Trumbauer work already commissioned.