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Two men, one vision

Architects Philip Freelon and Gary Bowden have teamed up to bring Baltimore's new African-American museum to life.

By Edward Gunts

Sun Architecture Critic

June 5, 2005

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"What obstacles will you overcome today?"

The spirit and mission of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture - as well as its sometimes difficult journey toward a June 25 opening - are neatly encapsulated in a billboard-sized sign mounted on its north wall.

The $33 million building at Pratt and President streets was constructed to celebrate African-Americans in Maryland who have overcome obstacles and gone on to make lasting contributions to society.

Who better to have designed it, then, than Philip Freelon and Gary Bowden, two of the country's most successful African-American architects, men who have refused to be thwarted by obstacles in their own lives?

Their respective architectural firms, the Freelon Group of Durham, N.C., and RTKL Associates of Baltimore, are 50-50 partners in the team that stepped in to design the project after one of its original architects died unexpectedly.

In the process, they broke a color barrier, becoming the first African-Americans to design a major building in downtown Baltimore.

In Freelon, 52, and Bowden, 65, the museum hired two men who had not worked together before and who seem in many ways to be opposites. They're also the sort of achievers that the museum was created to spotlight.

Freelon is a rising star in his profession, one of the few African-Americans to run his own architecture firm, and an expert in the design of African-American museums. Bowden recently retired after a long and rewarding career with a "mainstream" firm, specializing in retail and urban design.

Freelon is serious and reserved - a man who chooses his words carefully. Bowden is gregarious and talkative, the quintessential "people person."

"We are different," Bowden admits. "We've been described as the young bull and the old bull. At least we're both bulls."

They came together because of a shared vision of creating a world-class African-American museum as the next major attraction for Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and forged a strong and effective working relationship that helped guide the museum through its own construction obstacles.

With less than three weeks before opening day, both Freelon and Bowden say they're honored to be involved in the museum and hope it will touch people of all races. Above all, they say, they want its boldly modern home to serve as a reminder that anything is possible, that people can overcome any obstacles, when they're willing to embrace the future.

"A museum of history and culture isn't just about the past," Bowden says. "It's about today and tomorrow. It's about promise. It's about potential. It says to schoolchildren that you can achieve anything, you can go to a good place from a bad place and there is a future for you if you want it badly enough."

An early setback

Freelon and Bowden weren't the first choice to design the Lewis museum.

In 1997, the museum's nonprofit board selected Associated Baltimore Architects, a joint venture of Amos Bailey & Lee Ltd. and Grieves, Worrall, Wright and O'Hatnick Inc. Amos Bailey & Lee was one of the architects of Port Discovery. GWWO is a museum specialist that has worked with the Walters Art Museum and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, among others.

Then Michael Amos, the key African-American architect on the team, died of cancer. Another African-American, Johnny Lee, left the firm to start his own practice. The museum board kept working with the rest of the team initially. But the remaining architects were never able to come up with a design that could win approval from city and state reviewers - or the museum board itself. "It became obvious that the designs they were developing were not able to capture the spirit of what we were looking for," said the board's vice chairman, Aris T. Allen Jr.

In late 1999, the museum board decided to seek new architects. It was a difficult decision because it meant spending more money for design fees and delaying the start of construction. But Chairman George L. Russell Jr. and his board wanted the building to be right.

Philip Freelon

Freelon comes from a family that has valued art and education for generations. He was born in Philadelphia and went to public schools, including Central High, the same school attended by the noted architect Louis Kahn.

Freelon's father marketed medical equipment and supplies; his mother was an elementary school teacher. A sister, Randi Vega, is the director of cultural affairs for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. His paternal grandfather, Allan Freelon, was a gifted painter who worked in an impressionistic style and was active in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s. He was also one of the first African-American educators in the Philadelphia public school system.

Allan Freelon occasionally was faulted, by black and white critics alike, for not painting jungle scenes and tribal images. But he had never set foot in Africa, he would explain, and had no firsthand knowledge of what that continent was like. So he painted what he did know - the shoreline of Gloucester, Mass., the streets of Philadelphia. That attitude was not lost on his grandson.

"I didn't know him well, but I certainly remember him," Phil Freelon says. "W.E.B. Dubois was a colleague and a friend of his. African-American intellectuals of the time would come by his house. To have that kind of heritage in your family is motivational and inspirational."

Phil Freelon went to Hampton University, then transferred to North Carolina State University, where he earned a degree in architecture. He earned his master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In many courses, Freelon says, he was the only African-American student.

In 1979, he married Chinyere Nnenna Pierce, a budding singer from Cambridge, Mass., he met when she came to North Carolina with the idea of attending graduate school. Nnenna Freelon is now a jazz star who performs internationally. The couple have three grown children.

By the mid-1980s, Phil Freelon was making a name for himself at O'Brien Atkins Associates, a large architecture firm in North Carolina's "Research Triangle," but longed for more responsibility. In 1989, he took a leave of absence to become a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. While there, he wrote a business plan for a firm he envisioned starting, a company that would emphasize diversity and have offices up and down the East Coast. While planning his ideal firm, he noted the need for institutions that would celebrate African-American heritage - and the opportunities for architects who designed their homes.

A year later, Freelon gave notice at his old firm and launched his own practice. Today, the Freelon Group has 55 employees in two offices and works on a variety of projects, from airport terminals and hospitals to corporate headquarters and campus buildings.

Freelon's African-American museum design specialty began as an outgrowth of his campus work. The first projects were modest renovations of existing buildings to create gallery and meeting space. By the late 1990s, he had designed three African-American projects in North Carolina.

Baltimore's museum was a career breakthrough because it showed that the Freelon Group could expand its work to another state. Since beginning work in Baltimore, the Freelon Group has been hired to design the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C., and to complete a feasibility study for relocating the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Although these projects represent just a fraction of his practice, Freelon is working on more African-American themed museums and cultural centers than any other architect in America, black or white.

If there is any common thread to the museums, Freelon says, it's that they all use architecture to tell powerful stories. The civil rights museum in Greensboro, for example, will open inside the old Woolworth's building where four black college students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter in 1960 because the store wouldn't serve them.

Like the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, these museums may present shameful moments in history - examples of bigotry and hatred and abuse. But they also show what happened after those shameful moments, and the contributions African-Americans have made to the United States in spite of the persecution they have endured.

"It's not all about being a victim," Freelon says. "The important part is that we persevered."

Much of what Freelon does is to lead a team that works closely with clients and guides them in creating the sort of place they want. He sees himself as a facilitator for others' visions, rather than a heavy-handed designer who imposes his own. To do that, he says, it helps to have an architect who understands what the clients want to do.

"A lot of architects are designing museums," he says. But "it's important to be of the culture if you're talking about a culture-specific museum."

Gary Bowden

In more than three decades with RTKL, Bowden had worked throughout the United States and in nearly a dozen foreign countries. The closest he had come to working in Baltimore City was a series of retail projects in Baltimore County - White Marsh Mall, The Avenue at White Marsh and IKEA.

Bowden was born in the small town of Great Falls, S.C., and moved with his family at the age of 3 to Charleston, where his parents were teachers. He soaked up the well-mannered buildings and public spaces of historic Charleston and worked for his uncle's construction company. At 18, seeking a career in architecture, he enrolled at Howard University to get his undergraduate degree.

Bowden says he wasn't afraid that the color of his skin would be a barrier to his career goals, and he didn't seek out African-American role models.

"I didn't know anybody who was an African-American architect," he says. "I didn't know you had to know anybody who was an African-American architect. ... I was taught that you can achieve anything when you don't put boundaries on yourself."

In 1965, a month before entering graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, Bowden married his childhood sweetheart, Sandra, with whom he has three children. After college, Bowden taught design for three years at Hampton University. Then he joined RTKL.

Two of the principals, Bowden says, suggested early on that he might be a good fit for RTKL's planning studio, working with inner-city communities. But Bowden chose retail design, "where I knew there would be no advantage [to being black]."

Unlike Freelon, Bowden says, he never had the urge to start his own firm.

"I always found satisfaction working in teams," he says. "I also realized that the sort of projects I prefer are in cities and urban centers, and a large firm offered me the ability to work on large projects."

In addition, he says, he liked working at RTKL and kept getting promoted - even when he didn't think he was ready. "I found a very comfortable home at RTKL. I think RTKL was very progressive in terms of its attitudes."

Bowden and Freelon are two of the very few African-Americans inducted into the prestigious College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. As the highest ranking African-American at RTKL, Bowden has been a mentor to young employees of all races and nationalities.

Approaching retirement, Bowden saw the African-American museum commission as a good chance to wind up his career with a high-profile project that would make a lasting contribution to his adopted hometown.

"I thought, if I could do it, what a great way to retire - to do a job for my hometown and for my race," Bowden says. "I was pretty excited about it."

A 50-50 partnership

After parting ways with the Amos Bailey & Lee/GWWO design coalition in early 2000, representatives of the state and the private museum group notified a variety of leading African-American architects, including Freelon and Bowden, that they were seeking a new design team.

Bowden says he didn't think it would be appropriate for Maryland's African-American museum to be designed solely by RTKL because it wasn't an African-American firm. But he was open to the idea of working in partnership with an African-American designer and tried to determine who would be best.

"I asked around to see who are the rising young black architects, who have a bent for high design and design integrity," he says. "The answer I kept getting was Phil Freelon."

Freelon, meanwhile, says he decided it would make sense to work with a Maryland firm that knew the local players and had a feel for the site. He had been familiar with RTKL since his days at MIT, when the firm offered him a job. He also knew and respected Bowden and felt they would be able to work well together.

"No one [in Baltimore] knew who the Freelon Group was," he explains. "I felt that I needed a strong local presence. If RTKL didn't want to do it, I wouldn't have pursued it."

On the day of the interview, the team headed by Freelon and Bowden was scheduled to be the final group to make a presentation. "We knew we were going to be interviewed late in the day," Bowden says. "We had to show some excitement, some passion to get the job, and we had to show it would be a true collaboration."

So they walked into the meeting in all-black clothing with mock theater playbills, as if to say they were one unified team that had its act together. The title on the playbill: Collaboration, A Play in Three Acts.

Despite stiff competition, they got the job. Bowden is particularly proud that the team was structured as a 50-50 partnership. In many public projects, he says, there's a "minority" firm on the team, but it has a minor role. He didn't think that would be right for Maryland's African-American museum. "This was a true joint venture," he says. "Not window dressing."

Looking forward

With the opening drawing near, the architectural work is essentially complete. Freelon is focusing on other projects and building a national practice. Bowden retired from RTKL in 2001 and teaches architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he was just named the Kea Distinguished Professor. He also serves on the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel, which critiques designs for key projects around the city.

Russell, the museum board chairman, is clearly pleased with the final design. "What they've presented," he says, "is absolutely beyond our wildest dreams."

Walking confidently around the museum recently, Freelon was proud to show off features meant to convey the vibrancy and energy of African-American culture. Bowden, on the other hand, was as nervous as an actor waiting for the curtain to rise.

"I feel like a mother hen," he says. "It's less than a month from opening, and there's nothing in the gift shop. I hope the windows are cleaned. I hope that one wall gets patched."

Nevertheless, Bowden says, he's pleased with the location and the way the building turned out.

"Some people wanted it to be on Pennsylvania Avenue or in Druid Hill Park," he says. "I always wanted it to be in the middle of all the activity around the Inner Harbor, in the middle of the city. This is perfect. No more marginalization, being off to the side."


Philip G. Freelon

Age: 52

Birthplace: Philadelphia

Home: Durham, N.C.

Family: Married since 1979 to jazz singer Nnenna Freelon. Three children: Deen, 24, Maya, 23, and Pierce, 22.

Occupation: President and founder, the Freelon Group, with offices in Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte, N.C.

Education: Bachelor of Environmental Design (Architecture) from North Carolina State University, 1975; Master of Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1977.

Key projects: International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Greensboro, N.C.; Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco; Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans; the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (with HOK Sport); academic buildings for 12 of 16 campuses in North Carolina's state university system.

Quote: "I don't want to be the Spike Lee of architecture. I want to be the Quincy Jones of architecture."


Gary A. Bowden

Age: 65

Birthplace: Great Falls, S.C.

Home: Guilford

Family: Married for 40 years to Sandra Bowden. Three sons: John Scott, 39, twins Jeff and Paul, 37.

Occupation: Kea Distinguished Professor, University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Retired in 2001 after 31 years at RTKL Associates.

Education: Bachelor of Architecture from Howard University, 1963; Master of Architecture in Urban Design, Carnegie Mellon University, 1967.

Key projects: Master plan for downtown Silver Spring; Southgate Center, a mixed-use development in Umhlanga, South Africa; Plaza Las Americas, San Juan, Puerto Rico; Diagonal Mar Center, Barcelona, Spain; Avenue at White Marsh, White Marsh Mall and IKEA in Baltimore County; retail centers for the Rouse Co. and others.

Quote: "A museum is a house of memories."