By Vincent R. Horpel
The following biography on Jules Agramonte, who is known for designing the ground-breaking 1934 LaSalle (below), was written by his grandson.
Born in New York City on July 27, 1894, Julio “Jules” Agramonte y Mora was the youngest of four children born to Dr. Enrique and Justa Mora Agramonte, who had emigrated to New York City from Cuba around 1870. Entangled in the “Ten Years War” of independence (1868-1878) with no end in sight, then-Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Agramonte was sent to New York City to care for their family by his older brother, Major General of the Camagueyan armed forces and Cuban Revolutionary, Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz. Ignacio was revered by the Spaniards as a fierce rival commander, and was killed by Spanish sniper fire at the Battle of Jimaguayu on May 11, 1873. Jules was the nephew of Ignacio.
The sea as an influence to art
As a child growing up in New York City, Jules developed a deep appreciation for the sea, and enjoyed sailing in the Long Island Sound. This ultimately became a major passion for him. Over the span of his life, Jules sailed in still waters, as well as squalls and raging tides in the Great Lakes, San Francisco Bay, Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina Channel, in addition to Newport Harbor and the Canary, Balearic and Bahama Islands.
In 1913, Jules entered Columbia University’s School of Architecture, but the following year was recruited to join the American Field Service as an ambulance driver in France after the outbreak of World War I. He was in France from 1915 through 1916, returning home when the United States declared war. He returned to France in 1917 as a cadet in the Naval Reserve Force, where he remained until the end of the war. Upon his return to civilian life, Jules and Edith Koch Agramonte fell in love while taking art classes together at the Art Students League and the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. They were married in June 1919. During art school, Jules was deeply influenced by Picasso, Van Gough, Monet and Turner among other renowned artists.
Following art school, Jules pursued a career in illustrative design and became a freelance sketch artist, creating magazine covers for House Beautiful and Collier’s Weekly, as well as creating artwork Onyx Hosiery advertisements and New England resort brochures, where a sailing theme began to emerge in his work.
A shift to automobiles
A “car of the future” cover he was commissioned to complete for a motor car magazine of that era caught the attention of the Fleetwood Division of Fisher Body in New York in 1927, and he was hired as an automobile designer after one interview. He was later promoted and subsequently transferred to the General Motors (GM) Corporation Styling Section in 1930.
At GM, Jules was head of design development and styling for Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet Automobiles. He developed a LaSalle prototype in 1933, resulting in the stunning, new 1934 LaSalle that tremendously helped GM design chief Harley Earl save LaSalle, at least for a time.
With World War II looming, Harley Earl persuaded Jules to take a leave of absence in 1939 and visit southern California to recruit some design talent, even though GM would soon be gearing up almost entirely to military vehicle production.
Around this time, Jules penned the first slope-backed Cadillac, according to GM spokesman Phil Workman.
After departing from his position at GM in 1941, Jules took his family to Madeira, Portugal, for a short time before settling in Three Arch Bay in South Laguna, where he built a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When the United States entered World War II, he did general design for both the Douglas and Boeing aircraft companies. As a part of the war effort, Jules began to focus his artistic abilities on the design of war bond posters, some of which were published.
Meanwhile, his son, Robert Agramonte, joined the Army and served in the European Theatre and most notably survived the invasion of Normandy as part of the Omaha Beach infantry landing.
An epilogue in fine art
In 1946, Jules and Edith relocated to Santa Barbara, and for the next 14 years, his sketches and paintings began to evolve around sailboats and sailing regatta scenes, primarily depictions taken from his own sailing and racing experience in the Channel Islands and outside Santa Barbara Harbor. Among his favorite classes of racing hulls were Star Keelboats and Thistles.
Between 1954 and 1957, Jules studied art at the distinguished artists colony, Instituto Allende de San Miguel in Guanajuato, near Mexico City. He studied under instructor Janes Pinto, and artist-in-residence Rico Lebrun. Jules enjoyed sketching the neo-gothic Spanish architecture, surrounding landscapes, as well as cultural scenes in and around the colony. Also while in Mexico, much time was spent in Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, La Paz and Guymas with his sketches describing his vacations. This was also a time when Jules and Edith would take extended ship cruises around the world, sketchbooks and painting supplies in hand at all times.
Encouraged by their daughter, Leonie (Lee) Horpel, Jules and Edith made the decision to relocate to Newport Beach in 1959. A waterfront home on Lido Isle with its own slip suited the couple perfectly, and Jules drew depictions of sailing scenes viewed right outside of his living room window. A few years later, they relocated to Bayside Drive in Newport, where Jules and Edith spent much of their time sailing in Newport Harbor and outside of the jetties, usually heading south to Laguna and back, often observing sailboat regattas, which Jules captured in his artwork during that era. Several of Jules’ later paintings were inspired by the beautiful coastline between Corona del Mar and Laguna.
In 1963, Jules and Edith Agramonte moved into their final residence at the Channel Reef Condominiums in Corona del Mar. It was at this location where Jules created some of his finest work ever, including “View from Channel Reef” in 1968 and, in 1972, “Blue Spinnaker II,” which would be his last painting.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Jules’ work became widely known throughout California. His wife, Edith, passed away in 1970.
Jules’ art was featured in exhibitions up and down California. On June 11, 1982, in Newport Beach, Jules Agramonte peacefully passed and was reunited with his beloved wife, Edith.
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