Architect Philip Freelon remembered for changing the landscape of African American arts, culture and history

Gantt Center president and CEO reflects on the legacy of Philip Freelon. The renowned architect died July 9.

Philip Freelon, an architect whose list of design credits include Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., died July 9 at his home in Durham from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 66.

Philip-Freelon
Architect Philip Freelon died July 9, 2019. Photo via N.C. State University College of Design

As an architect, Freelon gained a national reputation as one of the leading designers of public buildings, cultural centers and museums that celebrated African American history –– the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

David Taylor, president and CEO of the Gantt Center, recalled Freelon’s work on the Center and shared thoughts on his legacy.

The Gantt Center could have selected any number of qualified architects when designing the building. Why was Freelon the best choice?

Phil was willing to fight for us even when we didn’t have complete community support. I’ll never forget when we had to make a presentation to the City Council members and some were really against it and thought the facility would take up valuable real estate that could go to shops in downtown.

Phil flew in for the meeting, and I’ll tell you, when he finished telling his story about the building and the vision he had for what it could be, it changed the whole dynamic of how the new Gantt Center was perceived. It suddenly became an important thread in the fabric of our Charlotte community. We saw council members who had been very negative about the Gantt Center change their tune. It was remarkable.

Gantt-Center-Philip-Freelon-jacob-ladder
Freelon drew inspiration from the former Myers Street School for the design of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Photo via Harvey B. Gantt Center

What was Freelon’s vision for the Center? What inspired his concept for the building we see today?

One of the things Phil was really passionate about was making sure his work gave relevance to the community he was designing for and putting history in the space. Take the Gantt Center, for example. Phil drew a lot of design inspiration from an image of “Jacob’s Ladder,” the paralleling staircases in front of the Myers Street School, which was the only public school for Black students in Charlotte at the turn of the 19th century.

If you look at how the Gantt Center is laid out, you see all our staircases have paralleling duplicates. Phil paid attention to every detail.

Philip-Freelon-photo-Endia-Beal
Architect Philip Freelon at Perkins + Will offices in Durham, NC. Photo: Endia Beal

You had the opportunity to get to know Freelon when he served as the lead architect for the Gantt Center. What was he like?

He demonstrated an enormous amount of courage. He never shied away from talking about the ALS, but he never let it get the best of him or prevent him from giving others his very best. He lived his life in the same way he built his buildings, with authenticity, strength and compassion.

He understood the importance of Black youth being able to come into a museum or an institution and see themselves celebrated in the art and building surrounding them. He wanted us all to have a sense of belonging and his work made us have a sense of value in who we are and the struggle African Americans have and continue to survive every day. He wanted people to feel like they could see themselves and unapologetically be ourselves in the spaces he created.

Having designed some of our country’s most celebrated institutions for African American history, what do you think his architectural legacy will be within the African American community?

His legacy is one that will be recognized as having changed the landscape of African American arts, culture and history within this country. When you think about the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., The Gantt Center, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and the others he consulted on –– just look how that landscape has changed in this past decade or so. Phil Freelon was able to touch those moments because he had the vision to be committed to helping build community through museums and cultural spaces.

How is the Gantt Center going to remember Freelon?

In some ways, it’s really easy for us because in a way the Center itself is a living monument of his work and who he is. Most people don’t know this, but the Gantt Center was the first museum Phil was ever the lead architect for. When you realize that, you have to stand back and say, ‘Wow, look how far he’s come and how fortunate we are as a city to house his work.’


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