Center Honors Charlotte’s African-American History

If they have permanent homes at all, African-American art museums typically don’t occupy prominent spots in city skylines. But that’s slowly changing, courtesy of The Freelon Group. Based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, this minority-owned firm designed the recently opened Museum of the African Diaspora, in San Francisco, and the Reginald F. Lewis African American History and Culture, in Baltimore.

Image by studioamnd, courtesy The Freelon Group

Among Freelon’s latest efforts is the Afro-American Cultural Center, planned for downtown Charlotte. The four-story, $18.5-million building will feature 45,000 square feet of gallery, classroom, and administrative space. Its facade is composed of jagged aluminum panels arranged in a way that recalls patchwork quilts. Rick Kuhn, one of Freelon’s design principals, explains that these quilts’ symbols and patterns often contained codes to help slaves escape from their masters.

In addition to its facade, the new building’s very address will also pay homage to African-American history. It’s located in Charlotte’s Brooklyn district, a once-thriving black neighborhood that was largely razed during 1960s-era urban renewal schemes. But a major design challenge was created by its narrow lot, measuring 50 feet by 400 feet, that straddles two tunnels leading to a parking garage for the future headquarters of Wachovia bank. To accommodate tunnel entrance ramps, the building must give up a significant amount of ground-floor space. Thus, the galleries begin on the second floor, clustered at either end of a central atrium.

Although compact, the new museum should seem expansive compared with the cramped former church it currently calls home. Better security will also allow it to attract higher-profile traveling shows of paintings and sculptures. Construction begins in December and should wrap up by 2009. When it does, the Afro-American Cultural Center will join three other nearby museums—the grace note of an emerging arts district. “We are thrilled,” says Mayowa Alabi, Freelon’s project manager. “We’ve never had an opportunity to work at such a high-profile site as this.”