Phil Freelon, visionary architect, leaves imprint on buildings across NC and beyond

Editor’s note: Phil Freelon, noted for his architecture, was named The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year in 2009, which honors North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions to the state and the region. The North Carolina resident died July 9, 2019, after being diagnosed in 2016 with ALS. This profile originally was published Dec. 27, 2009.

Architect Phil Freelon has built a good life.

His wife, Nnenna, is a Grammy-nominated jazz singer. Their three children, all educators and artists, have grown and found success in their own fields. His 50-member architectural firm based in Durham is regarded as one of the brightest in the country and continues to land highly competitive jobs even in a down economy.

It all comes, Freelon says, from the simplest of blueprints.

“A standard of excellence,” he says, and “a spirit of collaboration.”

It has been an exhilarating year for Freelon, 56. His company won an American Institute of Architects award. In October, Charlotte’s Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture opened to acclaim for Freelon’s design.

2009 Phil Freelon

And, in its biggest score yet, Freelon Group Inc. was this year named lead architect on the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, an arm of the Smithsonian Institution that will rise by 2015 adjacent to the Washington Monument. The firm also was chosen to work on the museum’s programming, a 14-month process that laid out the mission and vision of the museum down to the number of galleries it might have and some of its major exhibits.

The project, one of the last buildings expected to be built on the National Mall and subject to exhaustive design review, will require patience, perseverance and creativity from its designers to make sure it is grand enough to fit its site without overwhelming its neighbors. With four major design firms and 27 consultants, it will require the negotiating skills of a diplomat. It has the potential to attract, teach and inspire many millions of visitors a year.

It is precisely the kind of job that makes Freelon want to come to work every day after 30 years in the business.

“Architecture is art,” says Freelon, who specializes in public structures and is lauded for building things of uncommon beauty for common people. “It’s just not art that you hang on the wall.”

Freelon is a private man with a public mission. He does not design skyscrapers or private homes. He creates public spaces for ordinary people to appreciate their culture, to study, to heal or simply to catch a bus or a plane.

Phil Freelon’s beginnings

Beginning with small jobs such as elementary school library renovations in the 1990s, Freelon, a Philadelphia native, has left a broad imprint on the built landscape in North Carolina. He has had a major role in the design of more than a dozen structures in his adopted hometown of Durham alone, including the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, three public library branches, four buildings on the campus of N.C. Central University, and the city’s bus station, a curvaceous combination of glass and steel that still manages to be energy-efficient and user-friendly.

Beyond the Bull City, Freelon’s handiwork extends to the gliderlike general aviation building at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, as well as RDU’s award-winning parking deck, the new Terminal 2 under construction and the old American Airlines hub it is replacing.

Freelon Group has designed African-American cultural centers in San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore and Charlotte. The latter, the Gantt Center, is on a 400-by-60-foot site the museum’s planners originally saw as insultingly small and limiting, but Freelon viewed as a creative challenge.

“Difficult sites make for good design,” Freelon likes to say. He doesn’t avoid obstacles. He embraces them.

While his buildings tend to be open and inviting, Freelon himself is polite but reserved. An engaging public speaker, he can talk at length about the design process and give thoughtful answers to lay questions about the craft.

But, “He does not like talking about himself,” says his daughter, Maya Freelon Assante. “When there is a lot of fuss about him, he doesn’t like it.”

Though at ease at the head of the table in a meeting with officials from the Smithsonian Institution this month, he looked most content during an afternoon fishing getaway a few days later at a friend’s pond in rural Orange County. On a body of water not half as big as the reflecting pool near the Washington Monument, Freelon cast and reeled for two hours, surrounded by the designs of nature: the random angles of tree branches, the curve of the shoreline, the concentric circles in the water’s surface each time he tossed his lure.

He was there expecting to catch his supper.

Freelon enters architecture

Deliberate and in-control by nature, Freelon says it was a happy accident that brought him to architecture.

Freelon’s father, Allan Freelon Jr., was a medical device salesman and his mother, Elizabeth, an elementary school teacher. His grandfather, Allan Freelon Sr., was a prominent impressionist painter and art educator.

Growing up, Freelon never met an architect and knew nothing of the business, which comprises 120,000 licensed professionals nationwide. Of those, 1.5 percent are African-American.

By comparison, there are more than 800,000 medical doctors in the United States and more than a million lawyers.

His parents raised him to believe he could be anything he wanted; Freelon says he just didn’t know he wanted to be an architect until he got to Philadelphia’s Central High School, where he was offered classes in such things as painting and sculpture. He also found a course in drafting and design.

“That seemed to me the perfect blend of art and science,” Freelon says. “I loved physics and math, and this combined all of that with creativity. I just felt like I was born to do it.”

He enrolled in 1971 at N.C. State University to attend the College of Design, which he also credits with freeing his mind to new ways of problem-solving.

“You go through 12 or 13 years of school. They ask a question and you believe there is an answer,” Freelon says of his early education. “Design education is that there are infinite numbers of correct answers. Most kids, it takes a couple of years for their minds to process that. Me, I took right to it.”

After NSCU, Freelon went on to a master of architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to North Carolina and began doing design work for a Durham architectural firm and teaching part time at NCSU.

Phil Freelon with National Museum of African American History and Culture
Architect Phil Freelon, designer of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is one of six people Duke will award honorary degrees to at 2018 spring commencement. Courtesy of The Freelon Group

Phil Freelon’s career begins

After hours, he worked on design projects with a couple of old friends from school, one of whom lived in Carrboro and introduced him to a visiting acquaintance from Cambridge, Mass. Freelon, 6-foot-4, was drawn to the petite woman with the big smile and so many of the same interests that they couldn’t believe they had not met before. They liked the same kinds of music, the same movies, the same science-fiction books.

“I was dating someone else at the time I met him,” Nnenna says, “and I just dropped that other guy like a hot potato. I said, ‘I just met the one, and you’re not it.’ “

But she had to go back to Cambridge to finish school.

“We fell in love through letter-writing,” Freelon says. Eventually, he asked her to marry him. When she put him off, he told her he wouldn’t ask again. So when she was ready, she had to ask him.

“And he made me wait, too,” she says. “Just for a few minutes, but they were tense.”

They married in 1979. She joined him in North Carolina, and quickly became pregnant with their first son, Deen. Freelon considered becoming a full-time professor, but when NCSU wouldn’t promise him a tenure track position, he got angry and took a design job in Houston.

The couple stayed there two years before returning to North Carolina when Freelon was offered a position at O’Brien/Atkins Associates, a large firm in Research Triangle Park. Seven years later, at age 36, Freelon was a vice president in charge of the 50-member architecture division of the company.

They were doing good design, but it wasn’t necessarily Freelon’s vision.

Freelon took a year’s leave from the company in 1989 to attend Harvard on a prestigious Loeb Fellowship. When it was over, he says, he knew it was time to do what so many architects imagine they will do.

“It’s always in the back of your mind that you want to start your own firm,” Freelon says. He founded the Freelon Group in May 1990. He hired a couple of people that summer and a few more in the fall. As the firm has continued to grow, Freelon says he has made a conscious effort to hire as diverse a group of professionals as he can find. He wants to give talented people a chance, and he believes the greater the variety of right answers there are to choose from on any design problem, the better the building will be.

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture Observer file photo

Freelon’s family

About the same time Freelon was getting his firm started, the youngest of the three Freelon children started school and Nnenna was ready to go back to work. Before the children were born, she had worked in public health administration at the former Durham County Regional Hospital, a job that matched her degree but not her interests.

“I asked her, ‘What do you want to do?’ “ Freelon recalls. “I wanted her to realize her dream, just like I was realizing mine.”

She wanted to sing. When she did, he went to every performance he could, working during the day, teaching classes at NCSU in the evening and getting a seat in the lounge at the Raleigh Sheraton or wherever else she was booked at night.

Their increasing success at their respective careers required them each to travel farther and farther away, but the couple made sure that one of them was always at home for their children. Deen, Maya and Pierce grew up thinking it was normal for a mother to occasionally be on tour and a father to keep hard hats for everybody in the trunk of his car.

As much as he loves being an architect, Nnenna says, Freelon also relishes being a father.

“I think he builds children,” she says. “Not in the same way you build buildings, but you do build them. The time you spend, the things you model, the way you behave. Just like the way your partners, your employees, watch you, your children watch you. And at some point, the walk becomes more important than the talk.”

For Nnenna’s first overseas tour, Freelon flew with her to New York to see her off to Europe.

This year, she played about 75 dates, and when she went out of town, he drove her to the airport and was there to pick her up when he could arrange it. He goes to hear her sing at every opportunity. She attends his building openings when she can.

In fact, says Pierce, 25, a hip-hop musician and college instructor based in Durham, the whole family supports one another. He, Maya, 27, a mixed-media artist who lives in Baltimore, and Deen, 28, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle, arrange their schedules as much as possible to share in the important events in one another’s lives and those of their parents.

They were all there for opening night of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, with Nnenna singing the national anthem. On occasion, Maya’s work has been exhibited in buildings her father designed.

Freelon Group projects

Freelon, who believes plans are not just for buildings, makes sure these convergences happen from time to time.

“You can’t just wait for serendipity,” he says. “You have to help it along where you can.”

It helps, too, that so many Freelon Group buildings are meant for public use, places where people can be educated, entertained or enlightened.

“We’d probably go out of business before we’d design a prison,” says Lew Myers, director of business development, who scouts potential jobs for the firm. Freelon says he’d rather “work upstream,” building schools and hospitals that reduce the need for prisons.

Designing public buildings can be complicated and time-consuming. Years, even decades, can pass between the time a building is conceived and the day the lights come on. Budgets can be fickle, with money being appropriated, then taken away, forcing what architects refer to as “value engineering,” a common enemy of ambitious design.

All architecture is subject to criticism, but a building used by the public gets more scrutiny than, say, a corporate office complex like the one Freelon Group occupies in RTP.

Freelon worked on the design for Central Regional Hospital in Butner and is refining plans for the replacements for Broughton and Cherry hospitals, which will be built in the next several years. Collaborating with a firm out of Baltimore with experience in building a modern psychiatric hospital, the team came up with plans for a building at Central Regional that would reflect the most current treatment concepts.

The hospital, which opened in July 2008, has lots of gentle natural light, windows with views into courtyards, and a central “main street,” a common area that connects to a gym, computer rooms, a barbershop and a beauty salon. Freelon has a special interest in common areas in his buildings as places where people who might not otherwise do so can connect.

But what attracted the most attention at Central Regional was an inspector’s report several months before it opened that found 30 areas of concern.

“There were a whole lot of experts,” says Terry Hatcher, director of the division of property and construction for the state Department of Health and Human Services, which includes mental health. Most of the items on the list were already being taken care of when the inspection was done, Hatcher says. Only one, he says, could be considered a design flaw - the lack of a guard over a roof-access ladder - and Freelon made the change. In the end, Hatcher says, the state got a building that met the standards, the $125 million budget and the mission.

“It’s a very healing environment,” Hatcher says.

Freelon, who has cast his architect’s eye on landmark buildings all over the world, says great structures move people.

“Architecture does have the power to elicit an emotional response,” the same way a piece of music or a painting or a poem might. When it’s appropriate, he wants his buildings to do the same.

Building awards

His inspiration often comes from research.

Preparing a design for the Gantt Center in Charlotte, Freelon learned that the site for the building was in a part of downtown once occupied by black-owned houses, churches, schools and businesses. Like many throughout the country, the neighborhoods were deemed “blighted” during the 1960s and ‘70s and were destroyed by highway loops and other urban renewal projects.

According to the Charlotte installment of the Black America series of books, losses to the 3rd Ward area included more than a dozen black churches and Myers School, built in 1886 and the only public school for blacks in the area until 1907.

It was also called the Jacob’s Ladder School, a reference to a set of exterior stairs on the building where graduating-class photos were made, and to the ladder Jacob said he dreamed about in the book of Genesis in the Bible. That ladder, which led to heaven, is the subject of the slave-era spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”

The concept appears at least twice in the building’s design: on one exterior facade and in the long, steep escalator that lifts visitors from the main entrance of the building up to the welcoming second-floor lobby and art galleries.

The building incorporates another African-American tradition, quilting, through a “pieced” metal rain screen on the exterior separated by fluorescent light tubes that look like stitches across the abstract geometric design.

Though subtler than the giant tire that sits atop the new NASCAR museum down the street, the themes are recognizable and evocative.

“People respond to it,” Gantt Center CEO David Taylor says of the building.

The Gantt Center is one of several buildings the American Institute of Architects cited in naming the Freelon Group winner of the 2009 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.

The AIA also liked the airport parking deck, whose twirling, tornadic driveways and open, inviting atrium draw cars and pedestrians where they need to go almost kinetically.

Steve Totten, vice president of the Indianapolis office of Walker Parking, which teamed with Freelon on the project, says his company has designed about 4,000 parking structures.

“I would say this is probably at the very top, one of the most user-friendly that we have done,” Totten says. Recently, he made his 396th trip into RDU, and was struck again by how attractive and intuitive the deck is.

It’s one of Pierce Freelon’s favorite projects that his father has done.

“A parking lot shouldn’t be so splendid,” says Pierce, but is in keeping with his father’s coaching to his children. “Whatever you’re doing, as long as you maintain a really high standard of quality, it will come back to you. It will resonate with people,” Pierce recalls hearing from his father again and again.

As a head of the firm, Freelon still helps develop design concepts, such as the idea for the Smithsonian project, which draws from West African and American history, but he does less sketching and more mentoring and team-building now.

All along, Freelon has said the firm would have no “house design,” though its buildings trend strongly contemporary in their angular shapes, sleek materials and energy efficiency. A visitor driving around Durham wouldn’t readily identify any building as his, Freelon says, because they’re all different, each designed to fit its setting and purpose.

“But I would hope that they might say, ‘That’s a great building. I wonder if Freelon did it.’”

In his practice, Freelon doesn’t do residential design. But, his children are grown, and he and Nnenna no longer need the 10 bedrooms they have in a house in Durham’s historic Morehead Hill neighborhood. It was once used as a home for Episcopal monks.

The couple have bought a piece of land outside town, a few acres with a fishing pond. A topographic model of the property sits on a table in Freelon’s home study.

All it needs is a plan.


Philip G. Freelon

Born: March 26, 1953, in Philadelphia

Family: Wife, Nnenna Freelon; sons, Deen Freelon of Seattle, and Pierce Freelon of Durham; daughter, Maya Freelon Assante of Baltimore; sister, Randi Vega of Baltimore; brothers, Gregory Freelon of Brigantine, N.J., and Douglas Freelon of San Francisco

Education: Bachelor of Environmental Design - Architecture, with honors, N.C. State University, 1975; Master of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1977

What you might not have guessed: Freelon and his wife are Trekkies, and fans of science fiction in general. Was beaten at chess by his son Pierce for the first time last year, forcing the payoff of a $20 bet.

Musical skills: Plays a funk rhythm on a set of drums in his home study.

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