Phil Freelon, Durham Architect and Architect of Record for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Dead at 66

Philip Goodwin Freelon, local architect and the Architect of Record for the lauded National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., died on July 9th, 2019, at the age of 66. His death was due to complications from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In addition to being a nationally prominent architect, Mr. Freelon was an important local figure. He graduated in 1975 from North Carolina State University’s College of Design. Later, he served as an adjunct professor at his Alma Mater and designed both the Partner III building and the contemporary expansion of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design, both on NC State’s campus. At 25, he became the youngest architect to ever be licensed in North Carolina.

NC State’s Gregg Museum of Art and Design, Photo via Perkins + Will

Notably, he founded the Freelon Group in Durham, North Carolina in 1990. In addition to being one of the largest African American-led firms in the country, the Freelon Group was arguably the most prolific, responsible for major projects across the country. The firm was dedicated to the design of public spaces and the celebration and acknowledgment of black and minority culture, history, and rights in America. Reflecting that mission, the Freelon group was responsible for the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-America Arts + Culture in Charlotte, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, and Emancipation Park in Houston.


Imagery of the mosaic greeting visitors to the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. Photos via Perkins + Will

Phil Freelon aimed to do more than “wrapping a gallery or a library in a pretty box.” Instead, he focused on creating beautiful spaces that contributed to the vision of his clients, the goals of the institutions he served, and the fabric of the community. His work has a humanistic and contemporary appeal, with warm colors and light spaces that emphasize openness in a way that invites people in and conveys a sense of belonging.

National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo via Perkins + Will

The Freelon Group was also part of the design team to win the competition for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in collaboration with Adaye Associates and Davis Brody Bond. In doing so, they prevailed against other world-famous architects and firms. Later, they were also joined by Smithgroup, to create a design team informally referred to as FABS (Freelon Adjaye Bond Smithgroup).

National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo credit: Alex Fradkin via Architect Magazine

Freelon Group was acquired by Perkins&Will in 2014, at which point Phil Freelon joined the board of directors and became the managing director of their North Carolina studios. In this role, Freelon continued to lead design teams on critically acclaimed work. His local projects since the acquisition include the North Carolina Freedom Park in Raleigh and the Durham Transportation Center. He is succeeded in this role by Zena Howard, one of his long-time mentees who was also deeply involved in the design and construction of the NMAAHC project.

Phil Freelon and Zena Howard stand for a photo outside the NMAAHC, via Perkins + Will

Phil Freelon was a striking figure in a field that continues to struggle with a dearth of diversity. Too often, architects focus more on the buildings they’re designing than the people that will occupy them. As a result, the field has failed to grapple with the systemic issues that plague it and remains one of the whitest careers in the country. In fact, while 90% of licensed architect are white, just 2% are black or African American. Because of this, African Americans often don’t have a voice in the design and development of buildings meant to define and support their communities. Phil Freelon worked hard to engage with these underrepresented voices and lent his own where he was able. He was a role model, a furiously hard worker, and a pioneer dedicated to expanding the purview of architecture. His influence will be sorely missed.

Featured Image: “After Phil Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, he decided to start a foundation with his wife Nnenna Freelon to support ALS research. ” by Sufis Doucet, via WUNC Public Radio.

About the author: Nora Schwaller is a rising third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where she focuses on disaster recovery. Prior to UNC, she worked for an architecture firm in San Francisco.