It would’ve been real easy not to like Phil Freelon.
The dude was a handsome, successful architect with a world-famous wife and terrific kids who’d make any parent proud.
The only problem is, he was one of the nicest human beings you were ever going to meet.
Freelon, a longtime Durham resident, died July 9. He was sixty-six.
I knew him for twenty-five years, and he was always personable, kind, interested, and interesting. Indeed, when I think of Freelon, I think of the way Edwin Arlington Robinson described his protagonist in the first paragraph—and only the first paragraph—of his poem “Richard Cory”:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown / Clean favored, and imperially slim.
Yes, Freelon was a gentleman from sole to crown, but he also knew how to get down. He and his wife, Nneena, used to throw these wonderful, unstuffy New Year’s Eve parties where they made you feel as though you were their special guest, as though you were doing them a favor by showing up.
Trust me: They were doing you a favor by inviting you to what often seemed like the social event of the holiday season in Durham.
Phil himself was the funky deejay—The Fresh Prince of Freelon?—and each year, you were likely to see a certain municipal court judge (I won’t name him) in the middle of the dance floor doing a not-bad James Brown imitation.
It will not, however, be the holiday hoedowns for which he will be most remembered. That honor belongs to the buildings he designed around the world. The most prominent was the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.
As I wrote in 2016 when the museum opened, Freelon laughed at me—as he should have—when I asked if the museum was just another project for him.
“Come on, Barry. You know better than that. It was an incredible privilege and honor,” he said. “As an African American man, I feel a great sense of pride in helping to showcase the history, struggles, and more importantly, the contributions and achievements that are such a part of our nation’s history. I’m proud to build what will be the last monument on the mall.”
Moments after hearing about Freelon’s death, I called Lonnie Bunch III. Bunch was founding director of the museum but was recently appointed the secretary of the entire Smithsonian Institution.
“This museum would not have happened without the generosity and creativity of Phil Freelon,” he said. “He brought no big ego to the project. Instead, he was always saying, ‘This is something bigger than me. This is something honoring our ancestors.’ I remember his creative spirit, and him asking, ‘What do you need, Lonnie?’”
Y’all can remember him for what he built if you want to—and you should—but I’ll always remember him for what he didn’t build: prisons.
More than a decade ago, I learned that Freelon refused on principle to build prisons—always, sadly, a growth industry in America—and I called to ask why.
The Freelon Group, he said, had “a mission and a vision, and we only take on buildings that are consistent with that. … I’m not making moral judgments on companies that build prisons, but we feel our talents can be better used upstream, building schools and museums. Education is our focus.”
Indeed it was. When he was named architect of the year by Contract magazine, he was praised for his “portfolio of sophisticated, modern design. In the education realm, The Freelon Group completed thought-provoking spaces for N.C. A&T State University, Elizabeth City State University, and N.C. Central University.”
That’s upstream, all right.
Fast Company in 2017 called Freelon “America’s Humanitarian architect,” and the label fits.
Lew Myers, who worked with Freelon for nineteen years as director of business development, said Freelon like to design buildings that were accessible to people who normally didn’t get to partake of fine art, which is no doubt why—if you board a Greyhound at the Durham Bus Terminal and ride to the African American Museum in D.C.—you’ll have entered two of Freelon’s favorite structures.
Myers remembers the day in 2016 that Phil asked him to an early breakfast in downtown Durham.
Myers had already retired, so he figured Freelon was simply going to ask him to help out with some projects. And he did, but only after first informing his friend that he’d been diagnosed with ALS.
Myers said he was devastated, but he recalled Freelon saying, “I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m an architect, I’ve married the woman I love, I’ve seen my kids grow, I’ve seen my grandkids.”
“That’s where he was coming from, that spirit, when he told me,” Myers said. “Never once did he engage in a pity party or feel sorry for himself.”
It wasn’t his nature to feel sorry for himself, Myers continued.
You know who I feel sorry for?
Anyone who didn’t receive an invitation to the Freelons’ holiday parties—and anyone who never got to know Phil.
A version of this column originally appeared at The Saunders Report.
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