Wake County

Architect Phil Freelon’s firm to finish NC Freedom Park in Raleigh

A rendering of the North Carolina Freedom Park by Phil Freelon of Perkins+Will.
A rendering of the North Carolina Freedom Park by Phil Freelon of Perkins+Will. Perkins+Will

Durham architect Phil Freelon announced Wednesday that his group will undertake completion of the stalled N.C. Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh to honor the contributions of African-Americans to the state.

Speaking at a luncheon in Raleigh, Freelon said that he expects the project to be completed in 18 to 24 months, depending on funding. Luncheon organizers handed out a brochure that indicated the park is expected to be completed by 2020.

The Freedom Park has been in the works since 2002, when the Paul Green Foundation held a series of public discussions with the aim of establishing a monument to reflect the African-American experience in the state. In 2006, the Freedom Park committee identified a proposed site at Wilmington and Lane streets, just east of the Legislative Building, and money was allocated for it in the state budget. But the recession halted those plans and the project sputtered.

The N.C. Freedom Park’s board of directors asked Perkins+Will, which acquired The Freelon Group in 2014, to submit a design proposal for the project to replace a preliminary design concept that was adopted in 2008. The earlier design, which emphasized the impact of slavery, Jim Crow and the struggle for freedom, was withdrawn in 2015 after a focus group recommended a more uplifting theme reflecting changes in race relations in the state over the past 50 years.

“We got feedback from donors and other board members who thought that the times have changed and it should not be a monument to be focusing on slavery, Jim Crow and Reconstruction,” said David Warren, the board’s co-chair. “It’s time to build upon the positive steps we have made in race relations. Barack Obama was not president when the first design was submitted. His legacy has had a big impact on our thinking. It’s not so much about looking back as looking forward that’s symbolized by hope and optimism, and that’s what Phil Freelon picked up on.”

Warren said the project is expected to cost $5 million and that PNC, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation are among the early donors. “Others are announcing in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Freelon’s wife, six-time Grammy nominated jazz vocalist, Nnenna Freelon, kicked off Wednesday’s event with a medley of freedom songs from the African-American tradition. “Songs past,” she said. “Songs of struggle. Songs of triumph.”

Those themes of a historic past filled with struggle and triumph resonated when her husband said his design vision for the Freedom Park is informed by the belief that African-American history and culture helped form the foundation of the state’s distinctive growth and development. The soft-spoken architect shared a design narrative that wants to recognize the untold and forgotten contributions hidden under the surface of the state’s formal history. He likened African-Americans’ contributions to the state as part of a complex, subterranean root system that sustains a mighty oak tree.

“How often do we stop to consider the roots that make it all possible?” he asked.

Freelon is known for his design work on cultural institutions, most notably the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. He also worked on the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and is now working on an expansion of Motown Museum in Detroit.

“We’ve done a lot of work, projects around the country, and it’s particularly gratifying to do something at home,” Freelon said after making the announcement Wednesday morning following a black history month celebration. “It’s where we live, and this new Freedom Park in Raleigh, right in the center of the capital, is an important moment for us because I just feel a connection to our state, and I’m happy to be able to contribute something to where I live.”

Freelon was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, last March and has said he wants to draw attention to the Duke ALS Clinic, where researchers are trying to find effective ways to treat the fatal disease. A concert featuring his wife, Take 6 and Regina Carter will be held April 20 at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, with proceeds to benefit research at the Duke ALS Clinic.

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @tmcdona75589225