Architect Known For African American Museum, Charlotte's Gantt Center, Dies

Jul 9, 2019

Phil Freelon, an architect who designed buildings ranging from local libraries to Charlotte's Gantt Center for African American Center for African American Arts and Culture and the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, has died in North Carolina. Freelon was 66 and had suffered from ALS for several years.

Philip Freelon
Credit Twitter.com/pfreelon

Freelon died Tuesday in Durham, said Michael Reilly, a spokesman and friend.

"I'll remember him as one of the most gifted architects I've ever worked with but also one of the kindest individuals I've ever known," said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the African American Museum and now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, overseeing 19 museums and other organizations.

One of Freelon's most important contributions to the museum was recognizing the National Mall as "sacred space," Bunch said, so visitors "didn't just go into a building they could look out and see where history occurred. So that was kind of his genius."

Freelon was a Philadelphia native who worked for years at architectural firms in Texas and North Carolina. When he opened his own firm, he was the only employee. He declined to design prisons, casinos or strip shopping malls, instead focusing on libraries, museums and schools because he preferred "projects that contribute to society in some way," he said in an interview with The Associated Press in February 2017.

North Carolina State University, Freelon's alma mater, called him "a community-builder" and shared a video of his work. 

"The buildings he designed tell a story and bring people together," NC State said on Twitter. 

Freelon's national reputation grew as he designed projects such as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

Along the way, The Freelon Group merged with Perkins+Will, where he was the managing and design director.

The African American history museum opened in September 2016 in Washington, D.C., to wide acclaim. Freelon was the architect of record for the museum, working with partner David Adjaye, the lead designer. The building's design included a notable facade, known as the Corona. Its three-tiered shape was inspired by a symbol from the Yoruba people of West Africa featuring a crown.

Locally, Freelon was known for his work on the Gantt Center, which called him "innovative" in a post to Facebook.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture is seen in uptown Charlotte.
Credit HARVEY B. GANTT CENTER

"We are proud to carry out our mission in a structure that timelessly presents, preserves and celebrates excellence in black culture, by design," the Center said. "Phil took inspiration from Myers Street School in the historic Brooklyn neighborhood, interweaved community and our African ancestry to tell a story of aspiration and preservation of Charlotte’s black history."

But Freelon's legacy is known throughout North Carolina. 

"Today we lost a distinguished architect, husband, and father of three," Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted on Tuesday. "From his work on the world-renowned Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to his advocacy for the arts, Phil Freelon's impact on our country and our state will be missed."

He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a degenerative neurological disease that leads to total paralysis, months before the Washington museum opened. His disease slowed him, but he kept working, with projects that included a $50 million expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit.

That hard-working attitude was part of what made Freelon special, Bunch said.

"He made us believe we could always do this," Bunch said of the African American museum. "And that's a unique talent."

A service will be held Sept. 28 at the Durham County Human Services Complex, which Freelon designed. Survivors include his wife, the Grammy-nominated singer Nnenna Freelon; and three children.

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