Phil Freelon, architect of the African-American history museum in D.C., dies at 66

Free Press wire reports | 7/19/2019, 6 a.m.
Architect Phil Freelon, who designed buildings ranging from local libraries to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and ...
Mr. Freelon

Months before the Washington museum opened, Mr. Freelon was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological disease that leads to total paralysis. His disease slowed him, but he kept working, with projects that included a $50 million expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit.

Dr. Rick Bedlack, a Duke University neurologist, said he last saw Mr. Freelon on June 27. By then, Mr. Freelon was in a wheelchair and unable to dress or bathe himself without assistance.

“In that conversation, Phil had told me that he just had had enough,” said Dr. Bedlack, who began treating Mr. Freelon in March 2016. He had decided to quit eating and drinking, which he did on June 30, Dr. Bedlack said.

“He lived his life and he made the decisions,” Dr. Bedlack said. “The disease didn’t make the decisions for him.”

In a speech at Duke University in 2017 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mr. Freelon described his vision of architecture as a form of activism.

“I have worked through my career as an architect to create environments that are uplifting, inspiring and set the tone for sharing knowledge and facilitating cultural exchange,” he said. “You see, I believe that the built environment — that’s buildings and landscapes — can and should contribute in a positive way to the lives of everyday people. Beautiful architecture should be accessible to all, not just the 1 percent who can afford to engage the stars of our profession.”

Friends and colleagues described Mr. Freelon’s genius and generosity. He would sit quietly and beam as a colleague made a presentation at museum planning meetings, said Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum’s deputy director.

“He listened deeply. He heard profoundly. And he translated brilliantly the ideas of his clients,” she said. Many architects have an attitude of “my way or the highway,” but Mr. Freelon was different, she said. Mr. Bunch said Mr. Freelon was valuable not only as an architect, but also as someone who remained calm during the stress of deadlines and budgets.

“He made us believe we could always do this,” Mr. Bunch said. “And that’s a unique talent.”

A memorial service will be held Sept. 28 at the Durham County Human Services Complex in North Carolina, which Mr. Freelon designed. Survivors include his wife, Grammy-nominated singer Nnenna Freelon, and three children.