Philip G. Freelon
March 26, 1953 - July 9, 2019
Philip G. Freelon, one of America’s most influential African American architects and an activist for people and communities traditionally outside the mainstream, died July 9 in Durham, North Carolina following a lengthy battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 66.
Profoundly connected to and inspired by his family, he is survived by his wife of 40 years Nnenna Freelon; three children, Deen Freelon (Kate Sheppard), Maya Freelon, and Pierce Freelon (Katye Proctor Freelon); three siblings, Randi Vega, Doug Freelon (Richard Plombon) and Gregory Freelon; sister-in-law Debbie Pierce and brother-in-law Melvin Pierce (Pat Branner-Pierce); nieces Livvy Cunningham and Liana Cooper and nephews Andre and Niko Vega; and grandchildren Justice, Stella, Aion, August, Nova and Zora. He is preceded in death by his mother, Elizabeth Neal Freelon, his father, Allan Randall Freelon Jr., and a grandson, Wonderful Legacy Asante.
Phil was a change agent for his profession. A central theme of his work and a source of his satisfaction and enjoyment was creating spaces for everyday people. He challenged architects to see what he saw – that every person should experience beautiful and inspiring architecture not only when visiting a famous building but also in their everyday lives. Freelon was equally known for challenging the status quo, working to bring greater equity and diversity to architecture and business. As a mentor, he encouraged young designers and other professionals to aim high and break through established barriers.
He founded The Freelon Group in Durham in 1990, which earned dozens of national and regional design awards for educational, cultural, library, and health research buildings. Working in North Carolina and throughout the U.S., The Freelon Group became one of the nation’s largest African American-owned architecture firms. In 2014, The Freelon Group joined with global design firm Perkins and Will, where Freelon was named Managing Director of the North Carolina practice and served on the firm’s Board of Directors and Executive Committee.
A distinct sensitivity to humanity is evident in each of Freelon’s landmark projects: The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Durham County Human Services Complex in Durham, the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore, Emancipation Park in Houston, North Carolina Freedom Park in Raleigh, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, and the Motown Museum Expansion in Detroit.
Born and raised in Philadelphia among a family of artists, educators, and inventors, Freelon developed a lifelong love for the arts, music, and culture. Harlem Renaissance-era painter Allan Randall Freelon, Sr, his grandfather, helped ignite his awareness of the physical world and his interest in the creative expression.
He earned a Bachelor of Environmental Design in Architecture degree from North Carolina State University and a Master of Architecture degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Freelon was the recipient of the Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where he completed a year of independent study in 1989. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Duke University in 2018 and honorary degrees from NC State University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
He taught for more than a decade at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning and was a sought-after guest lecturer for architecture and design schools across North America.
Freelon was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, a recipient of the AIA North Carolina’s Gold Medal, a recipient of the North Carolina Award for Fine Arts, and a recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture. President Barack Obama appointed him to the United States Commission of Fine Arts in 2011. In January 2018, Fast Company magazine named him "Architect of the Year," lauding him as "America’s Humanitarian Architect."
Following Phil's ALS diagnosis in 2016, the family established the Freelon ALS Fund to support research and treatment of the disease as well as ALS patients and their families. In partnership with Perkins and Will, he established the Phil Freelon Fellowship Fund at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2016. The fund expands academic opportunities for African American and other underrepresented students studying design.