Architect shapes nation’s view of African American history

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Phil Freelon
Phil Freelon / © Gerry Broome

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was a long time coming, but for architect Phil Freelon it was right on time.

“It seems like I was preparing for that my whole life,” Freelon said in an interview at his office in Durham. “It came along at a time when I was prepared. If it had come online 10 years earlier, I think the Smithsonian might have considered me too young or not as experienced.”

Freelon, 63, was principal architect for the museum, which opened to intense acclaim and popularity Sept. 24 in Washington.

He’s now world-renowned for his designs, but his success didn’t come quickly or easily.

While home for the summer from college, he once resorted to nagging a local architect into letting him sit at a spare desk and deliver blueprints to engineers as he sought to enter a field with few fellow African-Americans.

Freelon, a native of Philadelphia, worked for years at firms in Texas and North Carolina before opening his own with one employee — himself. It took more years to build a national reputation, designing projects such as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

Freelon doesn’t design prisons, casinos or strip shopping centers, preferring libraries, museums and schools — “projects that contribute to society in some way,” he said.

A few years ago, The Freelon Group merged with Perkins+Will, where he’s the managing and design director.

His architecture team competed against larger, better known firms for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Freelon felt like an underdog. However, his team aced a key criterion, museum deputy director Kinshasha Holman Conwill said: “an understanding of the project.” […]