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Phil Freelon, an architect who led a design team that gave shape to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to critical acclaim on the Mall in as a monument to black struggle and triumph, died July at his home in Durham, N.C. He was .
He had complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, said a son, Deen Freelon.
Since , Freelon had led an architectural firm in Durham that specialized in designing public buildings, including other cultural centers devoted to African American life in Baltimore, Atlanta, Charlotte, San Francisco and Greensboro, N.C.
He led a consortium of several architectural firms — formally known as the Freelon Adjaye BondSmithGroup — that won the design competition for the African American Museum in Washington in . Their proposal was chosen, in a unanimous vote, over submissions from renowned architects such as Richard Meier, I.M. Pei and Norman Foster.
Freelon and the two other principal architects in the group, David Adjaye and J. Max Bond Jr., were black. Bond died in , just before the group won the competition.
Adjaye, born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, was the lead designer. As lead architect, Freelon helped with the design and oversaw the technical aspects of the project, which included negotiating the thickets of bureaucratic Washington. Adjaye described him in as a “steady rock.”
Over a seven-year period, and at a cost of more than $ million, Freelon and his group designed and built the ,-square-foot museum, which is adjacent to the Washington Monument. President Barack Obama was present for the museum’s groundbreaking in and when its doors opened four years later. Since then, nearly million people have visited the museum.
New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman pronounced it “the first really fine major public building of the century to rise in the nation’s capital.”
With its filigreed bronze-colored exterior and its three-tiered corona, derived from a Yoruban architectural element from West Africa, the museum stands in striking — and deliberate — contrast to the white marble edifices of so much of official Washington.
“We wanted the design to be meaningful beyond just a handsome building or a wrap around the exhibits,” Freelon told the Duke University Chronicle in . “We felt it was appropriate to have something linked to the motherland. This is an African American museum, so the African aspect of it seemed appropriate.”
Every part of the museum’s design had cultural meaning, even the .-degree angle of the edges of the three levels of the corona — exactly the same angle at the top of the Washington Monument, only inverted. The patterns in the building’s metal exterior are based on ironwork African American workers designed and forged for buildings in the South.
“The bronze has a patina to it,” Freelon told The Washington Post in . “It depends on the sky, the lighting and the time of year to give it a dynamic, changing quality.”
More than an upside-down pyramid, the three-level corona represents “a crown that signifies the status of the person wearing it,” Freelon added. “It’s part of the celebratory nature of the building — an architectural form that’s uplifting and dignified.”
The museum’s five levels of galleries begin in dark subterranean chambers, telling the story of Africans transported in cargo holds across the Atlantic to enslavement in the New World. Galleries on higher floors depict the path to emancipation, the sorrows and successes of the civil rights movement, and African American contributions to the nation’s culture.
“The African American story is the quintessential American story, even though it was about a forced migration,” Freelon told The Post in . “America is about opportunity for people from other places. You’ll find the best and worst of what the American story is in the African American story.”
Philip Goodwin Freelon was born March , , in Philadelphia. His father sold medical equipment, and his mother was a teacher.
Freelon discovered architecture in high school and, he told The Post in , considered it “a perfect blend of art and science.”
After attending Hampton University in Virginia, he graduated in from North Carolina State University. He received a master’s degree in architecture in from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he said he was often the only black student in his classes.
He worked at architecture firms in North Carolina and Houston before opening Freelon Group in Durham in . The firm grew from a staff of one — Freelon — to more than .
Following his belief that architecture could be a quiet form of activism and education, Freelon and his firm designed several museums of African American history and culture throughout the country, including the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in Charlotte and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
In Greensboro, Freelon used the Woolworth’s store in which African Americans staged one of the civil rights movement’s first sit-ins to house the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
In addition to museums, Freelon worked on the Tenleytown and Anacostia public libraries in the District, a baseball stadium and a bus terminal in Durham, and at least college campuses in North Carolina. After his ALS diagnosis in , he continued to direct several projects, including an expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit. He also served from to on the Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees public building projects in Washington.
In , Freelon married the former Chinyere Nnenna Pierce, better known as Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon. In addition to his wife, of Durham, and son Deen Freelon, of Chapel Hill, N.C., survivors include two other children, Maya Freelon and Pierce Freelon, both of Durham; two brothers; one sister; and six grandchildren.
“Each of us has our own perspective on history, and mine is formed by my family, in stories of not just difficulties but also triumph and joy,” Freelon told the Durham Herald-Sun in , when he received the commission for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “This museum is about the heroes that are familiar names, but it’s also about everyday people who’ve made an impact on this country, one person at a time.”
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GRAND RAPIDS, MI – A group of young bicyclists is currently riding across the United States to advocate for affordable housing, and helped a local housing organization in Grand Rapids along the way.
Based in Philadelphia, Bike and Build is a nonprofit advocacy group that bikes across the country, stopping at dozens of cities to volunteer at local affordable housing organizations.
The group stopped in Grand Rapids on Wednesday, July , to lend a hand at Dwelling Place, a local organization founded in the Heartside neighborhood.
Dwelling Place works to provide affordable housing support services around the area to revitalize neighborhoods.
Bike and Build volunteers spent most of Wednesday removing old furniture from Ferguson Apartments at Sheldon Blvd., which is run by Dwelling Place.
The furniture removal help was much needed by Dwelling Place, as they will soon begin renovations to the apartment complex at the end of the summer.
“Right now, our biggest need has been moving all this old furniture out of this building because it’s a ton of manual labor,” said Amy Henderson, Dwelling Place volunteer coordinator.
The volunteers went through each of the rooms in the complex and removed the furniture. The work took a lot of heavy lifting as the group carried furniture out of the building’s six floors in hot and humid weather.
The Ferguson Apartments complex was constructed by Dwelling Place in , and before that the building served as a hospital.
The renovations to Ferguson Apartments will cost about $ million, which will be financed by low income and historic tax credits, said Stephen Wooden, Dwelling Place housing and community development associate.
The renovation project will include repairing the flooring, putting in new cabinetry and appliances, and upgrading a rooftop deck to add more green space to the development.
“We firmly believe that everybody deserves a quality dwelling place to call home,” Wooden said. “That means we need to make the necessary renovations to ensure that our residents have a quality affordable place to call home.
“Bike and Build was great to come in and facilitate with this first step in our renovations.”
Founded in New York, Bike and Build has been pedaling for affordable housing since . Last month, the group embarked on a northern U.S. tour which will take them from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Bellingham, Washington.
With each stop, one thing becomes abundantly clear, volunteers said: There is an affordable housing crisis in the United States.
“Clearly there’s units in this complex, so that’s at least people who need housing in Grand Rapids,” said Meghan Higgins, , one of Bike and Build’s riders from Cheshire, New York. “Helping out with organizations like Dwelling Place has really shown me how much of an affordable housing crisis there is in this country.”
For volunteer Julie Maloney, Bike and Build is an important organization because it helps bring national awareness to the housing problem.
“It needs to be dealt with,” said Maloney, , of Breezy Point, New Jersey. “I think everyone needs to know about this issue, because sometimes it’s not always out there in the public eye.”
Wooden believes it will require help from the entire West Michigan community to address the crisis.
“We cannot deny that we’re reaching a critical level in our community and it’s going to require everyone – nonprofits, local government and everyday people – to come together to tackle this crisis,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, we have a shortage of affordable homes for folks here in West Michigan.
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