Global firm acquires The Freelon Group

Mar. 04, 2014 @ 05:25 PM

A prominent Durham architecture firm involved in the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and in the designs of other museums, libraries and other buildings around the country has agreed to be acquired by a global firm.

Phil Freelon founded the Durham-based, 45-person architecture firm The Freelon Group in 1990. Under a signed agreement announced Tuesday, the firm will be acquired by Perkins+Will, a global architecture and design firm that employs about 1,500 people. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Through the deal, Perkins+Will will combine 18 staff members based in an office in Morrisville with Freelon’s office in Durham, Freelon said. In addition, he will also oversee the firm’s 15-person staff in Charlotte. He will become managing director of the firm’s North Carolina operations, and will take a seat on the global firm’s board.
“A global firm with a strong presence in the U.S. and abroad is definitely a plus, in our view, because it gives our design work a broader platform,” Freelon said.
The firm had previously looked to acquire The Freelon Group five or six years ago, Freelon said, but he decided not to pursue a deal at that time. He said it “came back on my radar screen” and conversations began again in last summer. The firms have complementary skill sets and expertise, he said.
“Perkins+Will has expertise in areas where we are growing and where we would like to grow more, (particularly) in health care and science and technology,” Freelon said. “Likewise, Perkins+Will has a desire to extend their experience in areas where we’re strong, like libraries and museums and cultural centers,” he added.
Notably, The Freelon Group is collaborating with three other firms on the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. While the project is a collaborative effort, Freelon said the firm holds the title of architect of record for the project. He said work is expected to begin above ground on the museum later this month, taking the last space on the National Mall.
“It’s certainly one of the most, if not the most, important project in our firm’s history,” Freelon said. “Not only because of its sheer size and location and its prominence in the nation’s capital it’s very important, but also because it’s about the culture and history of my people. I’m an African-American. It’s an honor and a privilege to work on this project, and to help deliver a world-class destination for Washington, D.C.”
Also, Freelon said the firm was the architect of record for the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, it was the design architect for National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, it was the design architect and architect of record for the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, and was a partner in a joint venture for the design of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, among other work.
Locally, the firm also designed Durham County’s east, north and south regional library branches, the new Durham County Human Services complex that houses the county’s social services, public health, and mental health departments, and N.C. Central University’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute & Technology Enterprise building, among others.
A native of Philadelphia, Freelon got his bachelor’s of environmental design in architecture degree from N.C. State University, and his master’s of architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He was appointed by President Obama to serve on the National Commission of Fine Arts and earned the academic appointment of professor of practice at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, where he will continue to be a member of the faculty. He has also has lectured at more than 30 major universities, museums, and other prominent venues, and his work has been published globally.
Freelon started the firm in 1990, and added his first employees that year. Before starting his firm, Freelon was vice president of architecture at O’Brien Atkins Associates. He said he decided to start out on his own after taking a leave of absence to do a fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1989.
His firm has been as small as a single-man firm and it grew at one point to employ more than 60 people. He said the staffing declined during the recession through attrition and adjustments, but he said that was not a factor in the decision to combine with Perkins+Will.
He said the firm’s staff will remain intact as a part of the merger, and may even grow because of additional workload. The firm had several office spaces around the Research Triangle Park until 2003, when it purchased a building on South Alston Avenue and redesigned its interior.
Freelon said Perkins+Will has a decentralized management structure, and he expects the North Carolina offices to have a certain amount of autonomy. He added that he believes the cultures of the two firms are very similar.
“There’s a sense that we’re contributing to society as a whole, and making people’s lives better through our buildings in my firm, and Perkins+Will – there’s a lot of public sector clients there,” he said. “We feel good about creating design excellence and beauty for everyday people.”
Phil Harrison, president and CEO of Perkins+Will, said in a prepared statement that Freelon will “further strengthen” the firm’s leadership team and a complement to its design culture.
“With Phil Freelon, his experienced team of 40 designers, and other professionals who intend to join Perkins+Will, we look forward to offering clients a deeper level of cultural design expertise,” he said.