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Renowned Durham architect Phil Freelon dies

Posted July 9, 2019 2:00 p.m. EDT
Updated July 9, 2019 6:56 p.m. EDT

— Architect Phil Freelon, whose works included the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has died, his family said Tuesday.

"This morning, Phillip Goodwin Freelon joined the ancestors," the family said in a statement.

Freelon, 66, battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the degenerative neurological condition more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, for more than three years.

He started the Design A World Without ALS foundation to raise money for the research at the Duke University ALS Clinic, as well as to support ALS patients and their families.

"It's a way to do something other than just think about myself and my situation. I want to be able to help others with this condition," he said after his diagnosis. "I'm not so much focused on why this, why this time or why this particular affliction. I want to make an impact for as long as I can."

Freelon graduated from North Carolina State University before heading to MIT for graduate work and a career that eventually brought him to Durham to build the Freelon Group, his architectural firm.

The Freelon Group was chosen in 2009 to be part of a team to design the African-American history museum on the National Mall.

"I can go through that museum and resonate with the stories, the triumphs and the struggles because my parents and grandparents and ancestors lived it, and I lived through the '60s and came up through the civil rights movement, and it just feels like I'm part of this history now," Freelon said after the museum opened in 2016.

Freelon won multiple architectural awards during his career. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama appointed him to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

He is survived by his wife, Grammy Award-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, sons Deen and Pierce and daughter Maya.

The family is planning a memorial service this fall, but details weren't immediately available.

"A celebrated architect and tireless advocate for the inclusion of diverse people in the field of architecture, Phil Freelon has left with us a stunning visual legacy of African American architecture and a call to never lose faith in our abilities no matter what challenges we face," Valerie Ann Johnson, chairwoman of the North Carolina African-American Heritage Commission, said in a statement.

"For nearly 40 years, he made an indelible mark on the landscape of North Carolina and the country," North Carolina Secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources Susi Hamilton said in a statement. "He will be remembered as one of the most acclaimed architects of his generation, specializing in cultural museums, educational buildings and projects that tell stories, and he will be truly missed."

In lieu of flowers, the family asked those who want to honor Freelon become sustaining donors of Northstar Church of the Arts, which he and his wife founded last year, "so that the same creative and spiritual energies that nurtured him throughout his life, may positively impact others, especially in his adopted home of Durham."