An Architect's Penthouse in an Unlikely Place

By Stefanos Chen

The living area of Phil and Nnenna Freelon’s home, with stairs leading to the sole bedroom and master bath.
Alston Thompson Photography for The Wall Street Journal

In 1960, in the basement of Kress department store, an Art Deco building in downtown Durham, N.C., activists staged sit-in protests at the whites-only lunch counter.

Fifty years later, African-American architect Phil Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, a six-time Grammy-nominated jazz singer, became the first owners of a newly converted apartment in the top two floors of the five-story building.

“We thought it was an interesting twist that African-Americans would own the penthouse in a building that dated back to the Jim Crow era,” said Mr. Freelon, who has spent much of his career creating exhibition spaces for black culture.

Mr. Freelon, the design director at architecture firm Perkins + Will, led the design team behind the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. His other works include the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Emancipation Park in Houston and his current project, a $50 million expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit.

The couple bought the 2,100-square-foot, two-story space—a vacant shell that in another era stored mechanical equipment in the 1930s building—for $175,500 in 2010, records show. The 14-unit mixed-use condo development still has the original Kress logo and ornate terra-cotta facade. He bought the space from a developer who had intended to keep the unit, but was deterred by the awkward layout—the two floors are offset, not directly aligned on top of each other.

“We like challenges,” said Mr. Freelon, 64, for whom the project marked a departure from his large-scale, modernist work. “If it’s simple, it’s boring.”

He collaborated on the design with Durham architect Ellen Cassilly. The Freelons spent around $450,000 and nine months to complete the one-bedroom, loft-like apartment, which has a roughly 216-square-foot rooftop terrace overlooking the skyline.

Design obstacles became an advantage. The large commercial windows were unusually high off the floor, so Mr. Freelon raised the floor 18 inches, allowing him to hide ductwork and air systems below the floor and bring the windows to eye level. A structural beam in the center of the floorplan was used to create distinct quadrants on the main level: kitchen, dining, living and music, where Mrs. Freelon, 60, plays her baby grand piano.

The master bath off the bedroom suite.
PHOTO: ALSTON THOMPSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“It’s a lovely space to create music,” said Mrs. Freelon.

The foyer leads to an open floorplan with red-oak flooring, 9-foot concrete ceilings, and track lighting to showcase the family’s collection of mostly African-American art. One of Mr. Freelon’s favorites, an impressionist harbor scene from Gloucester, Mass., was painted by his grandfather, Allan Freelon Sr., a noted Harlem Renaissance artist. For “a little bit of funkiness,” Mr. Freelon said they built a curved pumpkin-orange wall that outlines the kitchen and adds color.

A central staircase is lighted by a large clerestory window that brightens both levels. Alcoves in the walls of the stairwell display traditional sculptures from West Africa.

Upstairs, the only bedroom, a spacious suite with 11-foot ceilings, opens onto the rooftop deck, with sturdy blue-oat-grass planters that can withstand Durham’s dry heat. A television is hidden in the adjacent study, where Mrs. Freelon creates collage and multimedia art. (Rather than watch TV in the bedroom, they stream music by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald or Pat Metheny on their built-in sound system.)

West African sculptures are displayed in recessed spaces in the stairwell.
PHOTO: MARK HERBOTH

The couple, who have been married for 37 years and have three adult children, used to live in a 6,000-square-foot Georgian Colonial nearby. They are now wrapping up a modernist lake house about 20 minutes from town, where they plan to split their time.

Their plans were complicated last year when Mr. Freelon was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease that affects muscle control and mobility. “It’s relevant to everything I do now,” said Mr. Freelon, who launched the Freelon Fund to support research on the disease.

The couple’s two-story penthouse can be retrofitted with a glass elevator, he said, and their lake house was designed with mobility and ease of access in mind from the start.

He finds some poignancy in how his work remains the same. “I’ve always been focused on accessibility and providing equal access to everyone,” he said.

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