North Carolina

Architect Phil Freelon’s legacy reflected in ‘Jacob’s ladder’ design of Gantt Center

Phil Freelon – NC State graduate, community builder

After graduating from NC State College of Design in 1975, Durham architect Phil Freelon earned national renown. Freelon died on July 9, 2019, after a three-year battle with ALS. He was 67.
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After graduating from NC State College of Design in 1975, Durham architect Phil Freelon earned national renown. Freelon died on July 9, 2019, after a three-year battle with ALS. He was 67.

Renowned architect Phil Freelon, who died this week at age 66, was the mind behind one of uptown Charlotte’s most distinct landmarks: the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture.

Freelon also designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

In planning the $18.6 million Gantt Center, a long, narrow building that serves as a cultural hub for exhibits and programs honoring African-American life, Freelon took inspiration from the now-gone Myers Street school.

The school, the oldest African-American school in Charlotte, stood for decades in the Brooklyn neighborhood and was recognizable for its outdoor staircases that wrapped around the building. It was torn down during integration in the 1960s, but Freelon incorporated its legacy into the Gantt Center.

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The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture at night. Courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center

Jacob’s ladder

The Myers Street school was nicknamed “The Jacob’s Ladder School” due to its outdoor wooden fire escapes, added as the school grew into the largest school for black children in the South.

“The stairs in the Jacob’s Ladder school were a notion of pride,” said Witnie Martinez, vice president of institutional advancement for the center. They were a symbol of advancing to a better life.

The narrow Gantt Center building is wrapped in a metal frame, creating a block design that invokes that Jacob’s Ladder motif — one of Freelon’s central choices, Martinez said. The design also mimics African quilt block patterns.

The school was located down Stonewall Street from the center, on land that is now the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center.

Local historian Tom Hanchett said that the precise angles of the Myers Street school staircases are reflected in the wrap design.

“In the Bible, Jacob’s ladder was the way onwards and upwards to a better faith and a better life,” Hanchett said.

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The Myers Street School in Charlotte a two-story wooden building with eight classrooms. Built in 1886, it was the only public graded school serving black children until 1907. Courtesy of Shelia Bumgarner, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library

Enlightenment

Martinez said that Freelon incorporated two long staircases and escalators in the Gantt Center — which take visitors to the main second floor lobby — as homage to the school.

“It actually mirrors the Jacob’s Ladder experience,” Martinez said. “It signifies the growth and trials, tribulations and educational advancement of African Americans.”

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Phil Freelon and David Taylor, President and CEO of Harvey B. Gantt Center, at Jazzy Benefit Gala 2017, where Freelon was honored. Courtesy of Witnie Martinez

The inside of the center features art by prominent black artists as well as local community members, whose designs are also sold in the gift shop with profits returning to creators.

The Gantt Center’s long, narrow floor plan — which includes galleries, gathering spaces and exhibits — fit into the land that was available, Martinez said. And because enlightenment is key to the design, one wall includes large glass windows, which are lit at night.

“It is one of the most, if not the most, stunning building in this entire city,” Martinez said. “Because you can tell that it was built with thought, and that there was a true visionary behind it.”

The Charlotte Observer takes a look at a black community that was erased from Charlotte's uptown area due to Urban Renewal. Plans to develop the area with apartments and stores have been controversial due to the history.

Freelon’s legacy

Freelon maintained minor involvement in the Gantt Center after it opened in 2009, and was honored for his work at a center gala in 2017.

A year earlier, he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

“He was a friend, and someone that I admired greatly,” said Harvey Gantt, who is also an architect. “We both believed in the importance of architects participating in the community.”

The center is one of one of five similar centers for African-American culture that Freelon designed in the United States, including ones in Baltimore, San Francisco, Atlanta and Greensboro.

“His impetus was to build structures that were of the highest caliber, in cities that needed them and … [in] neighborhoods that couldn’t afford those calibers of architectural designs,” Martinez said.

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