Two Men, One Vision

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

Cover Story

June 05, 2005|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

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 museum 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 large, local 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 to go 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 school children 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 non-profit 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 suddenly 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 board vice chairman Aris 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 Russell 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.

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