Phil Freelon – Activism, Art & Architecture

Since its founding by Phil Freelon in 1990 the Freelon Group has won numerous architectural and design commissions for significant museums, libraries, academic, and other cultural buildings.  Phil and the Group have garnered many accolades.  The American Institute of Architects honored Phil with its Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.  In 2012 President Obama appointed him to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

In their introduction of Phil, Past President Lois Deloatch praised him for his contributions to the Durham community and Ellen Cassilly called him a “giant” in his profession.  Phil was honored with a Paul Harris Fellow award for his civic and cultural work in Durham.

Prominent projects of the Freelon Group have been: the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Emancipation Park in Houston, Charlotte’s Harvey Gannt Center for Africa-American Arts+Culture, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and model libraries in the DC Library system.

Perhaps his most significant commission was heading the design team for the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture that opened near the Washington Monument on the Mall almost a year ago.  Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis was a key champion of the museum.   (In planning a trip to D.C. bear in mind that although entry to the Museum is free, timed passes are required because of heavy demand.  These passes may be obtained online.)

Phil’s presentation to the club included slides illustrating some of his major projects, especially the 400,000 square foot NMAAHC.  The guiding philosophy was to create a place of celebration of the African American experience and history.  It was also important to include spaces for contemplation.  A circular cascade of water falling into an interior courtyard encourages a moment for reflection.  The lattice façade is inspired by slave built iron grillwork found in New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah.  An unsupported spiraling steel staircase leading to the underground theater is breathtaking.

Among the artifacts displayed in the museum is a Pullman car on which white jacketed African Americans served passengers in the days of train travel and a training plane used by Tuskegee Airmen.  An interesting piece of trivia was the fact that the Pullman car had to be lowered into the building before construction was completed.

In 2014 Perkins+Will, a global architectural firm acquired the Freelon Group.   Phil remained head of the North Carolina group which has 60 employees in Durham and 20 at its Charlotte office.   The group’s move from RTP to the former NC Mutual building brings another dynamic contribution to downtown Durham.

Phil jokes about being a native Philadelphian with a southern accent.  He came south to study at North Carolina State where he earned a degree in Environmental Design.  Then it was on to MIT for a Master’s degree in Architecture.    In another aside, he said the most fun part of being an architectural designer was building models.  It was like being a kid again. In addition to his architectural work, he has held positions as lecturer at several academic institutions and serves as mentor to students and colleagues.

Phil’s wife, Nnenna Freelon, is a six time Grammy nominee for her jazz vocals.  They have three talented, creative children.  Pierce, a Hip Hop artist and political science professor at NCCU, is running for mayor of Durham.  Deen is a professor at American University.  Maya, the great granddaughter of a pioneering African American impressionist painter, is a visual artist.

Submitted by Allen Cronenberg


  1. Reporter Allen Cronenberg missed a big opportunity to highlight the most recent and relevant Freelon project—North Carolina Freedom Park in Raleigh. This $5 million commemoration of the African Americans’ struggle for freedom will be an educational experience for the thousands of school kids who come in buses from all over the state. They will learn a new perspective on history and the contributions of our African American citizens.
    See the website

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