The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, designed by Baltimore-based GWWO Architects, is rich in allusion. It is part interpretative center, part memorial to Tubman, who was born into slavery in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, before her heroic actions led to her own freedom and that of more than four dozen others before the Civil War.
Much of the low-lying tidal area in Church Creek, Md., the site of the new visitor center, remains much the same as it was during Tubman’s years there in the first half of the 19th century. This mix of swampy wetlands, fields, and small wooded stands of trees, known as Blackwater, has been called the “Everglades of the North,” GWWO President Alan Reed, FAIA, says. Archaeological digs are still uncovering the precise history of the surrounding area, but as Reed says, “we're sure that Tubman had traveled across that land at some point.”
The first time it visited the site, GWWO saw the landscape as significant part of the story. “You're exposed out in this field,” Reed says. “As you move [north] toward hiding in the woods, that became the metaphor for freedom.” To help direct visitors’ attention to the landscape, the architects separated the administrative support services into a separate and partially concealed 4,296-square-foot building. Plantings will eventually render it as a vegetated wall more than a structure; it serves as the western edge of a courtyard for the main 10,939-square-foot visitor center. The two buildings are slightly splayed, offering a wide view of the northern woods from the courtyard.
The visitors center comprises four gabled structures linked by low flat roofs. The three primary gables are parallel and clad in vertical flat-seamed zinc, with the southern and fourth block composed of horizontal cedar siding topped by a zinc roof. “The cedar will gray, so eventually the whole complex, which now is comprised of two very different materials, will mesh together and become one in color and in texture,” Reed says. The abstracted forms represent stations along the underground railroad, with the gables reflecting Dorchester County’s predominantly agrarian vernacular. The different sizes and cladding of the structures suggest the makeshift nature of the underground railroad. “There was no one type of station,” Reed says. “It wasn't always a barn, it wasn't always a cellar.”
Visitors enter a flat-roofed connection between the two southernmost volumes; the cedar form to the right houses a gift shop and restrooms. The exhibits run through the three zinc-clad structures to the north, where the nine-foot-tall wood ceilings rise as high as 26 feet under the wood trusses of the gables. The journey through the displays follows a contorted path that represents the fraught travel through the underground railroad. At the northwest corner of the building, visitors face a choice—either move outside into the courtyard, where they can walk across the field to the wooded area to the north, or return through the building along its western edge.
The exhibition designers, Haley Sharpe Design, opted for an irregular placement of the windows, framing the landscapes where the events described in the installations may have occurred—an approach that accentuates the abstract nature of the building. The architects and exhibition designers did collaborate on the design of one wall: “We did this abstract arrangement of windows that alluded to spirituality,” Reed says, emphasizing that Tubman’s religious faith was a critical part of her story. The designers first considered using stained glass, but instead they used scrims to cover the lower windows and create a similar effect inside.
The architects brought another visceral element to the visitor experience with their choice of different floorings. The exhibit areas are carpeted: “When you're in the exhibits, your foot fall is quiet, you're hiding,” Reed says. “When you come out on the return path, you're on a wood floor, so you're much more conspicuous—you're exposed, out in the open.”
For GWWO, the project was a chance to merge different practice areas. “We think the best stories are told [by relying on] a close integration of landscape architecture and exhibit design,” Reed says. “This project was perfect for that.” The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center shows how this approach can increase the narrative potential of design when interpreting our most difficult histories.