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