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

The Charlotte Observer - - FRONT PAGE - BY SARAH SKIN­NER sskin­[email protected]­lot­teob­

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.


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.


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.”

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.”


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 AfricanAme­r­i­can 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.

Cour­tesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Cen­ter

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

Cour­tesy of Wit­nie Martinez

Phil Freelon and David Tay­lor, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Harvey B. Gantt Cen­ter, at­tend the Jazzy Ben­e­fit Gala 2017, where Freelon was hon­ored.

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