Remembering Steve Schuster and Phil Freelon, architects who transcended their designs

Phil Freelon, left, was a Durham-based architect who died July 9, 2019. Steve Schuster was a Raleigh-based architect who died Aug. 17, 2019. Both left their imprints on their cities, state and the country.
Phil Freelon, left, was a Durham-based architect who died July 9, 2019. Steve Schuster was a Raleigh-based architect who died Aug. 17, 2019. Both left their imprints on their cities, state and the country.

Updated Sept. 16 at 8:35 p.m. See details in story.

I first visited Raleigh in 2002 on a trip from Louisville, Ky., for a wedding.

The day before the nuptials, the soon-to-be groom — a young architectural designer — took a group of us on a downtown tour that started at Marbles Kids Museum and ended at his office. We stood in the parking lot there, marveling at a pair of renovated warehouses where two partners — one an artist and the other an architect — had created three distinct spaces. The repurposed buildings now contained a studio, professional offices and two residences.

As we looked on, a behavioral therapist in the group turned to me and said about the architect: “Man, that guy is totally self-actualized.”

He was talking about the late Steve Schuster of Clearscapes, a firm co-founded in 1981 with artist Thomas Sayre.

His observation sent me on a five-year quest to understand the concept. Self-actualization, I discovered, is a theory about growth during a search for meaning in life. Developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943, it’s most often depicted as a pyramid composed of five tiers of human needs.

Self-actualization — the realization of potential or talent — sits atop them all. It was not the first time that Schuster would influence my outlook, indirectly or directly, and I learned the therapist’s description of Steve was quite appropriate.

He was a giant among Raleigh architects — the right person in the right place at the right time to raise this city and state up. With his death on Aug. 16, from cancer, a huge void now exists. We’re not likely to see anyone with his organizational, revenue-finding and political skills here again anytime soon.

Schuster isn’t the Triangle’s only influential architectural loss this summer. On July 9, Phil Freelon died after a three-year battle with ALS. Freelon carved out his own self-actualized niche on the local, state and national stages. And he did it with grace, dignity and enormous strength.

Freelon is known as the architect of record for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

But he left his mark in his home state, and especially in Durham, where his firm helped design the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (1995), the Durham Station Transportation Center (2008) and the BRITE (Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise) building at North Carolina Central University, The News & Observer reported. He was also behind the design of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte.

I interviewed both Schuster and Freelon several times over the years for this column and other publications, writing about their projects, examining their design and function and how the structures forged symbiotic relationships with their surroundings. Over time, I came to know them as more than just architects, but as leaders and thoughtful people. Here are some reflections.

Steve Schuster

By 2005, I’d walked away from a 25-year career in public relations and stepped into journalism full-time. When my wife was offered a job in Wake Forest in 2006, we moved here, and I was writing in earnest.

I interviewed Schuster and Sayre a number of times about art, architecture and urban planning – and where these two were taking Raleigh and North Carolina.

Schuster was always insightful, intelligent and careful to listen before responding to questions. Usually, I could count on him for a spot-on quote. In 2010 when I was writing for The Huffington Post about local architects’ funding their new North Carolina Center for Architecture & Design, he cut to the chase and quipped: “It’s one thing to ask clients to build, but something else for architects to whip out their own checkbooks.”

In 2018, architect Erin Sterling Lewis and I approached him about moderating a design charrette called CONNECTIONS 81.2. We had invited architects from New York’s Hudson Yards to Raleigh for three days of talks, workshops and presentations, focusing on ideas for 81.2 acres of land between Dix Park and downtown Raleigh.

Schuster not only agreed to moderate talks by the New York designers – he offered to ask a hotel to donate rooms for the visitors. A quick phone call sealed that deal.

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That’s just one example of his dedication to the physical and cultural advancement of Raleigh and North Carolina. He mastered the public realm, chairing Raleigh’s planning commission and developing projects like Marbles — one of the top five destinations downtown — along with the Raleigh Convention Center, CAM Raleigh (the Contemporary Art Museum) and a series of revitalized theaters and community centers statewide.

“He changed the direction of what’s around us,” Sayre said in a recent interview for this column.

In my opinion, his crowning achievement is the new Union Station, which was no easy task. It was an extremely challenging site where city, state, private and railroad interests all collided at once. But Schuster succeeded in weaving them together. When I wrote a column about it in late 2018, one that wasn’t completely favorable, he shook my hand and thanked me anyway.

Phil Freelon

I interviewed Freelon for pieces in The News & Observer and Walter magazine, among others. I found him to be both modest and immensely talented.

He certainly will be remembered for his work as architect of record for the Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to critical acclaim in 2016. Less well-known is how he came to that position. In conducting research for a profile in Walter magazine, I talked to a number of people about that.

Freelon was doing his homework before the building was a twinkle in any architect’s eye. Early on, he was tracking U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ efforts to bring legislation before Congress to create the new museum. In 2003, when President George W. Bush signed H.R. 3491 into law after seven long years, Freelon and his firm, Durham-based The Freelon Group was a step ahead of the competition.

In New York, he reached out to Max Bond, the pre-eminent African American architect at the time. They teamed up and entered an international planning competition facing Foster + Partners, Pei Cobb Fried and Moshe Safdie, among other top-tier firms, for the coveted job.

And they prevailed. When I interviewed him about the 2007 competition, Freelon credited Bond with the win, saying that he wrote the program that persuaded the judges. He diminished his own role as designer and played up Bond’s.

By 2008, British architect David Adjaye requested a meeting with Bond and Freelon, seeking to join them in the design phase of the competition. Freelon flew to New York to meet him. When he returned to Durham, the new team was in place, though not the way he’d anticipated.

“Phil came back and said: ‘I was hoping he was going to be a son of a b----, but he wasn’t — he’s a great guy, and he’s going to be the designer,’” Lew Myers, former director of business development at The Freelon Group, told me a few years ago for the Walter profile. “It took me a while to come to grips with that, but that’s an example of how he put the project and the client first.”

When the museum opened, Adjaye credited Freelon for managing contracts and overseeing a complex delivery process. “This gave me the confidence that I could really focus in on designing the building, and the rest would be in safe hands,” Adjaye emailed me a few years ago for the Walter profile.

In 2015, in the middle of it all, Freelon took time to join me and three others to discuss publicly a book I’d written on architects who draw by hand. To be sure, one of the chapters was about him. But there he was, working on a museum The Architect’s Newspaper later called “the most important American building of the 21st century,” and still taking time to talk to local designers about the importance of a hand sketch.

“If I had to describe him with one word, it would definitely be gracious, but he was also a great leader and a great architect,” said Zena Howard, principal and managing director at Perkins + Will. That firm merged with The Freelon Group in 2014; Freelon worked there until his death.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote. “Life is about creating yourself.”

Phil Freelon was a living, walking example of that, as was Steve Schuster. But what’s remarkable about this pair of self-actualized architects is that they left behind more than a wide-ranging series of community-changing buildings.

They left behind elegant models of how to live.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at architectsandartisans.com. He can be reached at mike@architectsandartisans.com.


A public memorial for Phil Freelon is Sept. 28 at 3:30 p.m. at the Durham County Human Services Building, 414 E. Main St., Durham. There will be a by-invitation tribute hosted by AIA Triangle and Perkins + Will, at 411 Chapel Hill St. in Durham earlier that day.

A public memorial to celebrate the life of Steve Schuster will be hosted by family and friends Nov. 3, at CAM Raleigh, 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh. The time will be announced.

A previous version of this story incorrectly said the tribute hosted by AIA Triangle and Perkins + Will is open to the public. It is by invitation only.
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