Architects present new Harriet Tubman State Park

Special to the Dorchester Banner/Lisa Krentel GWWO Architects hosted an information meeting at the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park to explain the many significances of the buildings and grounds.

Special to the Dorchester Banner/Lisa Krentel
GWWO Architects hosted an information meeting at the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park to explain the many significances of the buildings and grounds.

Interview by Susan Klise
CAMBRIDGE—A sneak preview of the nearly-finished Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park was given to local guests on July 16. On that afternoon, a presentation by the architects responsible for the design of the project put the collection of unique buildings on Golden Hill Road in Church Creek in clear perspective.

The 10,000 square-foot complex is striking, but at the same time familiar—somewhat barn-like, somewhat contemporary, but still fitting with Dorchester County. The chosen theme is “The View North,” and is based on the notion that escaping slavery by fleeing to the north was the dream that drove Harriet Tubman, and indeed most slaves, to risk their lives for freedom.

The task of designing the $21 million project was given to GWWO Architects, a Baltimore-based architectural firm specializing in cultural and educational projects. Every building in the complex, every wall, window, and possibly blade of grass has a meaning related to Harriet Tubman’s legacy, and speaking to explain the significances was GWWO’s Senior Associate Chris Elcock.

“We focus on interpretive centers, museums, and the performing arts,” explained Mr. Elcock, “and a project like this which is connected to telling a story, and for the last year it’s something that we’ve felt so honored to work on. We call our work story-based design. We like very much to have the story form the architecture. So when you have a story as rich as Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, it provides us with lots of opportunities.”

GWWO was selected in 2008, when they began the research on Harriet Tubman and Dorchester County. “Once we won the contract,” Mr. Elcock stated, “to design the project, the first thing we do is open our ears. We spend a lot of the time with the local community groups, people who have been part of this for a long time. Hearing the land, hearing this area from their own eyes, hearing the landscape from historians, hearing the stories being told by those who have written books about the region, so that we can really get as knowledgeable as possible about the region before we start.

“So you may think that just traveling north to escape the circumstances of slavery is kind of a pretty basic notion. That was the major organizing factor for the design of the entire park. Once we framed that view north, it made it really easy to create the other buildings and attach the other needs that the park would have.”

In the park, everything reflects the view north, the buildings, the windows in the buildings, the carpeting and flooring, the landscaping as well. As you walk through the building complex, the view north increases as you moved northward. The exhibits, which are still being designed, will explain the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, while the outside view reinforces the story.

“It is really a unique collaboration between architecture, exhibits and landscaping,” said Mr. Elcock.
“We had to work really close together (on all the elements), we felt that that would be the correct approach for a project like this. So if elements of the landscaping reinforce the northward view, we wanted to make sure the buildings didn’t block that, in fact, we wanted to make sure that while you’re in the building that view would be reinforced. So there are certain targeted views to the north, certain targeted views of the Blackwater Refuge, and even targeted views of some of the landscaping features were very, very important to us. This is very much the kind of building where, though you may be on the inside and may be learning something about the landscape, you can also see aspects of that landscape right outside.”

Upon entering the Harriet Tubman visitor center, visitors are greeted with a familiar barn-like structure, housing the gift shops and restrooms, with rough cedar walls, wood floors and exposed beams. Architect Elcock refers to the interior spaces as “volumes,” saying that the subsequent buildings or exhibit rooms are “three abstract volumes, and we wanted to be sure that they couldn’t be confused with any other structure around. So we tried to do a number of things to these structures. First, they’re clad in zinc, and the reason being that we wanted a material that would last for many years. Zinc has a patina that dulls, but it also has a self-healing patina, and we felt that that was a very interesting metaphor for the country’s attitude towards slavery—that it would eventually, over many generations, that it would dull, and it would heal.”

Special to the Dorchester Banner/Lisa Krentel Some of the buildings are faced with zinc, which was chosen for its weathering characteristics--it dulls and heals over time, much like the country’s attitude towards slavery did.

Special to the Dorchester Banner/Lisa Krentel
Some of the buildings are faced with zinc, which was chosen for its weathering characteristics–it dulls and heals over time, much like the country’s attitude towards slavery did.

The buildings are linked with a common “spine” that proceeds north as the exhibits are viewed, representing the northbound journey of the Underground Railroad. The interior exhibition space will be approximately 5000 square feet, with an additional 700 square feet of space available for temporary exhibitions.

The exterior of the complex features an interpretive permeable walking path, and a large pavilion that will be available for rental for events. The landscape is planted with native trees and shrubs, and will alternate with mowed and unmowed grass areas to recall local farm fields.

Among the exhibits planned for the center will be a bronze bust of Harriet Tubman, being commissioned by Maryland artist Brendan O’Neill Sr. Artist O’Neill crafted a bronze of Harriet Tubman for the State of Maryland in 2015, and it is the first bust of an African American permanently displayed in the state’s Government House. Upon dedication of the Harriet Tubman bronze in January of that year, then governor Martin O’Malley said, “In commemorating the life of Harriet Tubman, we’re ensuring that the healing light of those who shine against the darkness of human frailty will never dim.”

Opening day for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park is March 10, 2017, Harriet Tubman Day.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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