Acclaimed Durham architect Philip Freelon, whose architectural designs stretch from Duke’s campus to America’s capital, died yesterday at the age of 66.
Freelon was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as ALS, months before the opening of his crowning achievement, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“He was a wonderful colleague and one of the very best architects of his generation,” said Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III, who collaborated with the late architect on projects on campus and in Durham, in a news release. “I was honored to be his friend and his sponsor when Duke gave him a well-deserved honorary degree.”
The recipient of an honorary degree from Duke in 2018, Freelon was one of America’s most prominent architects—having designed buildings across the country like the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
“Today we lost a distinguished architect, husband and father of three,” Gov. Roy Cooper wrote in a tweet Tuesday. “From his work on the world-renowned Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to his advocacy for the arts, Phil Freelon's impact on our country and our state will be missed.”
The renowned architect also greatly influenced Durham. A resident of the Bull City, Freelon helped design the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Durham Station Transportation Center. Julian Abele—who designed West Campus and the Chapel—was one of his inspirations.
He and his wife, Nnenna Freelon, founded the Durham-based North Star Church of the Arts in 2018 to be a “sacred space for healing, arts and spiritual connection.”
The day Freelon died, the church posted a message from the Freelon family in a Facebook post and wrote, “This morning Philip Goodwin Freelon joined the ancestors.”
In 2016, he was diagnosed with ALS. Treated by Professor of Neurology Richard Bedlack at the Duke ALS Clinic, Freelon launched Design a World Without ALS, a fundraising drive for the clinic that raised over $150,000.
Although he was diagnosed soon before the opening of the NMAAHC, he kept his head held high, his son Pierce Freelon wrote in a 2017 Facebook post.
“He was thankful for the blessing of spending a lifetime pursuing his passion,” he wrote. “He was thankful for a loving family and nurturing community. He was patient and poised, and approached the disease one day at a time—unwilling to throw in the towel without a fight!”
Freelon spoke at Duke in 2017 to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. just a few months after the NMAAHC had opened. He told the audience that the museum is “intentionally unique” and a commemoration of African American history and culture.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“Yes, there are difficult stories—segregation, slavery—and those are told. We must tell the truth,” he said. “But we do not want this to be about victims and perpetrators.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Freelon was diagnosed with ALS in December of 2016. The Chronicle regrets the error.