Phil Freelon, Designer of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Dies at 66 Following Earlier ALS Diagnosis

The man who headed the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture has died at age 66.

Phil Freelon’s death was announced by his family and posted on the website and Facebook page of the church he co-founded with his wife, jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, called Northstar Church of the Arts.

Architect Phil Freelon, co-designer of the new Smithonian National Museum of African American History and Culture stands in the National Building Museum on Feb. 16, 2012, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“This morning Philip Goodwin Freelon joined the ancestors,” read the July 9 post. “Renowned architect, photographer, fisherman, husband and father of three, Phil and his wife Nnenna Freelon founded Northstar Church of the Arts in 2018, to be sacred space for healing, arts and spiritual connection.

“In lieu of flowers, Phil has asked that those who want to honor his legacy become sustaining donors of Northstar Church of the Arts,” the notice continued, “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, North Carolina.”

The family also revealed a memorial service is planned for the fall. Further information about the service is pending.

In March 2016, Phil Freelon was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative neurological condition. That came six months before the opening of the highly-anticipated Smithsonian Black history museum in Washington, D.C.

“I like to do projects that enhance the lives of everyday people, like campus buildings, libraries, museums and government buildings,” the architect told NBC News in 2015. “I like to create beauty in everyday lives. That’s why the Smithsonian museum linking back to my own culture is more fulfilling. From jazz to hip-hop, African-American culture is everywhere.”

In addition to his architectural firm, The Freelon Group, being responsible for devising, designing and building the NMAAHC, Phil Freelon is also behind the construction of other Black history museums in America. The architect helmed the designs for Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, according to Architecture magazine. Additionally, he’s overseen several multiple library projects in Washington, D.C.

Among his honors are being named to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2011 by then-President Barack Obama and receiving the highest civilian honor in North Carolina in 2017: the North Carolina Award, which recognized his offerings to the state and fine arts across the country, CNN reported.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend and colleague, Phil Freelon,” said NMAAHC secretary and founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III in a statement Wednesday. “Though, our hearts are heavy, they are filled with appreciation for his vision, his passion and his love for our museum. His work brought to the National Mall a bold, new statement of elegance and dignity. Phil once said, ‘the museum is more than a building; it is a sacred place that houses the spirit and the dreams of our ancestors.’ Phil Freelon will forever have a permanent place in the story of this museum.”

Phil Freelon is survived by his wife and their three children.

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