Shaping the Visitor Experience

The buildings that serve as visitor centers at sites of cultural, historic, or environmental importance are as varied as the sites they serve, but the best are emblematic of resources they serve. They must support the varied needs of their visitors, from tourists making a quick stop as part of a packed itinerary, to individuals or groups who may spend hours exploring the site. More than just a box for exhibits, presentations, and a gift shop, a visitor center needs to represent the mission of the site, highlight attractions, orchestrate access to indoor and outdoor areas, and, through the exhibits it houses, stand alone to educate visitors who may not have the time or ability to navigate the larger site. Highlighted here are the stories of three very different visitor centers that illustrate how the design of each responds to its unique mission, context, and desired purpose. The sites include an historic industrial complex, an urban nature park, and an historic rural estate.


Building as Artifact: The Schuylkill River Heritage Center

The American, Industrial, and Environmental Revolutions were born on the banks of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River and its tributaries, and in recognition of the many historic sites within the river’s watershed, the Schuylkill River National Heritage Area was designated by an act of Congress in 2000. Part of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Phoenix Steel Company, which gave Phoenixville its name, started producing iron products in 1813 and ultimately developed the “Phoenix Column”, which supported some of the world’s sturdiest bridges and early skyscrapers.

Phoenix Iron & Steel was ultimately shuttered in 1987, and most of the buildings were demolished. However, the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation (PAEDCO) had the bold vision to transform one of the two surviving buildings into a contemporary museum and gateway to the Schuylkill River Watershed’s natural and historic attractions.  The by-then decrepit Foundry Building, built in 1882, had been abandoned with steel-forging equipment and less interesting debris still packed inside, providing both structure and exhibit materials to support this vision. CICADA Architecture/Planning, Inc. worked with landscape architects and exhibit designers, first to preserve the original beauty of the stone Romanesque building, and then to insert a visitor center into a portion of the  indoor and outdoor spaces to tell the story of the steel industry’s impact on the region.

In this visitor center, the building itself is the main attraction. The building’s “bones” have been exposed in all their aging, gritty glory, with contemporary spaces created within to showcase exhibits, provide services, educate, and direct people to surrounding trails and outside attractions. Visitors now follow the path of the Schuylkill River traced on the floor from the outdoor entry plaza into and around the museum. Exhibits enlighten people about the interconnectedness of the river to the industries that flourished along its banks. A curved glass wall frames the Phoenixville Crane, a wooden and metal pivoting relic that moved vats of molten iron from the furnace to the casting floor. Gears, columns, cranks, shafts and pulleys rescued from the Foundry are hung on walls, displayed in cases and strategically placed like sculpture around the museum. Outside, Phoenix columns stand upright encircling the plaza in a Stonehenge-like tribute to the importance of steel on the country’s development.

With the award-winning Schuylkill River Heritage Center, PAEDCO and CICADA successfully proved the validity of saving gritty, Industrial Age factory buildings to keep history alive and to serve as anchors to revitalize the towns that grew up around them. 


Building as Connection to Nature: Pennypack Environmental Center

Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is a unique urban park system comprising over 8,900 acres of diverse neighborhood and regional parks that encompasses one-tenth of the land in Philadelphia.  Over half of the park system is comprised of natural areas – stream corridors, woodlands, meadows and wetlands – that serve as important ecosystems in the midst of one of America’s most populous cities.  In 1997 the Fairmount Park Commission’s Natural Lands Restoration and Environmental Education Program (NLREEP) was established to restore the natural areas in seven watershed and estuary parks throughout the city, and build a constituency for the park’s protection through environmental education and public stewardship.  CICADA Architecture/Planning, Inc. was tapped by NLREEP to design the expansion and renovation of the first of three environmental centers, located in Pennypack Park.

Here, the natural environment is the main attraction, and the building supports that by providing indoor spaces for environmental education. One of the primary design challenges was the original building itself; it was designed in the 1960’s as an object in the landscape, shaped like a simplified butterfly in both plan and section. This was not a building designed to accept change gracefully, but more indoor space was needed to provide accessible visitor amenities, create a kitchen and maple sugaring operations area, provide a resource library and reading room, and accommodate additional staff. 

Faced with a limited budget and an oddly shaped, almost windowless building, the architects knew they needed to do more than simply add space. They wrapped the front and side of the existing building with an L-shaped addition that would better frame the landscape and more directly connect visitors to trails and outdoor attractions. They opened up the building to the site by adding large windows and creating a welcoming, accessible gateway to the wilderness beyond. The expansion was also designed as a living laboratory that uses sustainable innovations like passive solar, natural ventilation, and low-impact local construction materials to demonstrate how buildings can harness the power of nature while protecting the environment.

Exhibits at Pennypack include traditional display cases with Native American artifacts, “stuffed animals” of the real variety, and other natural objects d’art positioned as displays.

In addition to their work on the Environmental Center building, CICADA designed other site improvements to further enhance the visitor experience, including new wayfinding signage, parking lot improvements, and  renovations to an historic farmhouse on the site that supports the work of the Friends of Pennypack Park.


Building as Museum: Pennsbury Manor Visitor Center

From 1683 to 1701, Pennsbury Manor was the American home of William Penn, founder and proprietor of the Colony of Pennsylvania. The estate sits on a boot-shaped finger of land surrounded by water from the Delaware River and several other tributary creeks and channels. The original buildings did not survive, but they were recreated as a project of the Works Progress Administation (WPA) in the 1930s. A small visitor’s center was constructed in the 1960’s, containing an assembly room, public restrooms, a small lobby, and staff offices, but by the 1990’s it was clear that this facility was inadequate, and eventually the Pennsylvania legislature allocated funds for a new facility.

The new building was not to be a simple visitor’s center; planned spaces included an exhibit space and adjacent archives with museum-level environmental controls, a research library, and costume storage and changing rooms for the site’s historic reenactors, as well as staff offices, and an assembly room, gift shop, and public restrooms. Given that program, it would be much larger than any other building on the site.

Since the new visitor center would have a significant impact on its historic site, CICADA’s design process included public meetings with the Friends of Pennsbury Manor, docents, staff and neighbors, to arrive at a design concept and site location that would be acceptable to all stakeholders.

The design came into focus as a building with two distinct personalities.. From the air, the building is shaped like a pan flute with a long rectangular wing facing the parking lot, and three wings, each a little shorter than next, facing the historic estate. The parking lot side is a simple, long, brick building with a central gateway entrance directing people from the parking lot into the museum spaces and out to the 17th century estate beyond. On the estate side, facing the manicured grounds, the three connected, clapboard wings mimic the estate’s humble outbuildings.

CICADA’s approach to this project delivered all the desired indoor spaces while breaking down the scale of the building into smaller parts that don’t upstage the main attraction. From within, the interior organization provides framed, composed views of the grounds beyond to visitors as they make their way through its exhibits and presentations, telling the important story of William Penn and his legacy of shaping the land and the laws of Pennsylvania.