As a kid, Philip Freelon loved to draw and build things. In the classroom, his favorite subjects were math and science. His passions as a child would later put him on the path to becoming a nationally-renowned architect.
A children’s picture book titled “Dream Builder: The Story of architect Philip Freelon” written by author Kelly Starling Lyons, tells the story of Freelon, the lead architect and visionary behind many unique structures across the country, most notably the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“An editor at the (book) publisher Lee and Low was interested in a picture book about an architect who designed the (Smithsonian) National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.,” Starling Lyons said. “The architects who designed the building were a team of three people. Phil Freelon was the lead architect for the team that did the museum. I asked them if I could write about Phil and they were excited about that idea.
“Once Phil agreed to be a part of the project, I started the process for the book. I interviewed him and his wife Nnenna various times in person, on the phone, and through email. I also do my own research. From there, the story began to unfold.
“He’s done so many amazing things,” she added. “Many Black museums and other public spaces across this country were built because of him. He created such beauty and hope in his work. I’m so grateful that I was able to know him and got the chance to write the story of this extraordinary unsung hero.”
A native of Philadelphia, Freelon grew up in Germantown. His grandfather was an acclaimed painter of the Harlem Renaissance. His father was a successful businessman who attended the 1963 March on Washington and his mother was an educator. He went to Central High School and he would attend Hampton University and later North Carolina State for college.
It was in college, where Freelon started to do his own research on architects from other races and cultures including African-American and Islamic designers. Instead of building casinos or prisons, Freelon concentrated on building schools, libraries, and museums including the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore, International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina; the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco among others.
In 2009, Freelon along with partners J. Max Bond Jr. and David Adjaye, were selected by unanimous decision to design the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon was the lead architect for the project.
In the 40-page picture book illustrated by Laura Freeman, “Dream Builder” follows Freelon’s journey from his struggles of reading as a kid to his love of art and creativity as a child to the impact of the Civil Rights movement in his architectural career. The book closes with an afterword by Freelon himself. Freelon died in 2019 at the age of 66 from ALS.
“The book is framed around architecture which I thought would be an innovative way of looking at his story,” Starling Lyons said. “I thought about having subheads of the architectural process like the blueprint, the building process, and the outcome — all of these different parts, which was a part of his story.
“Once I looked at his story in that way, I realized that Phil just wasn’t building museums, spaces, or libraries. He was building dreams. I wanted to make sure that his voice was in the book and it meant a lot to me that this would be a true representation of who he was as a person and architect.
“Laura also did amazing work on ‘Dream Builder,’” she added. “She really brought his story to life with all of the details in her illustrations. There’s an illustration in the book where Phil is sitting in his drafting class at Central and she added the blueprints lightly to the page in the background to emphasize his love for architecture. She really brought his story to life.”
Starling Lyons said that through this book she hopes that children will not only learn about Freelon’s life, but that they also recognize and achieve their own dreams.
“His path to being an amazing architect started in Philadelphia with his family and teachers; it was something that he was extremely proud of,” Starling Lyons said. “He wanted to share his story with the next generation. His hope for this book was to inspire kids to think and dream bigger. That there is no ceiling that can’t be broken.
“I want kids to be able to use his amazing story and life as inspiration for their own lives,” she added. “Just because you may not be good at one thing, doesn’t mean you’re not good in other areas. Everyone’s journey is unique. They’re so many paths to follow and different dreams to build. They just have to realize it, work hard, and make it happen.”
“Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon,” Lee and Low Books, 2020, $19.95, 40 pages