Inside the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center

GWWO/Bob Creamer Photography

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, designed by GWWO architects of Baltimore, is rich in allusions. It’s part interpretive center, part memorial to Tubman, who was born into slavery in Dorchester County on Maryland’s east coast, 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 tide area at Church Creek, Maryland, the site of the new visitor center, remains much the same as during Tubman’s years there in the first half of the 19th century. This mixture of swampy wetlands, fields and small wooded stands of trees, known as Blackwater, has been called the “Everglades of the North”, said GWWO President Alan Reed, FAIA. Archaeological digs still reveal the precise history of the surrounding area, but as Reed says, “we’re sure Tubman passed through this land at some point.”

The entrance to the visitor center serves as a link between two volumes, one clad in zinc and the other in cedar.
GWWO/Tom Holdsworth Photography
The entrance to the visitor center serves as a link between two volumes, one clad in zinc and the other in cedar.
An abstract arrangement of windows on one of the west facades was designed to honor Tubman's religious beliefs.
GWWO/Bob Creamer Photography
An abstract arrangement of windows on one of the west facades was designed to honor Tubman’s religious beliefs.

When he first visited the site, GWWO saw the landscape as an important part of history. “You’re exposed in this area,” Reed says. “When you move [north] hiding in the woods has become a metaphor for freedom. To help direct visitors’ attention to the landscape, the architects separated administrative support services into a separate, partially hidden 4,296 square foot building. The plantations will end up making it a green wall more than a structure; it serves as the western edge of a courtyard for the 10,939 square foot main visitor center. Both buildings are slightly flared, providing a wide view of the northern woods from the courtyard.

The visitor center comprises four gabled structures connected by low flat roofs. The three main gables are parallel and clad in vertical flat seam zinc, with the south block and fourth block consisting of horizontal cedar siding topped with a zinc roof. “The cedar will turn gray, so eventually the whole complex, which is now made of two very different materials, will fit together and become one in color and texture,” Reed explains. The abstract forms represent stations along the Underground Railway, the gables reflecting the predominantly agrarian vernacular of Dorchester County. The different sizes and coatings of the structures suggest the artisanal nature of the underground railway. “There wasn’t just one type of station,” Reed says. “It wasn’t always a barn, it wasn’t always a cellar.”

The path through the visitor center was designed to be winding, a reference to the difficult journey undertaken by those who escaped to freedom.
GWWO/Bob Creamer Photography
The path through the visitor center was designed to be winding, a reference to the difficult journey undertaken by those who escaped to freedom.
Windows in the visitor center offer views of the surrounding landscape and woods to the north
GWWO/Bob Creamer Photography
Windows in the visitor center offer views of the surrounding landscape and woods to the north
Scrims on an abstract wall of windows create a lighting effect similar to stained glass.
GWWO/Bob Creamer Photography
Scrims on an abstract wall of windows create a lighting effect similar to stained glass.

Visitors enter a flat-roofed connection between the two southernmost volumes; the cedar shape to the right houses a gift shop and restrooms. Exhibits pass through the three zinc-clad structures to the north, where nine-foot-high wooden ceilings soar up to 26 feet below the wooden trusses of the gables. The journey through the screens follows a winding path that represents the arduous journey through the underground railroad. At the northwest corner of the building, visitors have a choice: either exit into the courtyard, where they can cross the field to the wooded area to the north, or return through the building along its western edge.

The designers of the exhibition, Haley Sharpe Design, opted for an irregular placement of the windows, framing the landscapes where the events depicted in the installations may have occurred, an approach that accentuates the abstract nature of the building. The exhibit’s architects and designers collaborated on one wall design: “We did this abstract arrangement of windows that alluded to spirituality,” Reed says, noting that Tubman’s religious faith was an essential element of its history. The designers initially considered using stained glass, but instead used scrim to cover the lower windows and create a similar effect inside.

The entrance to the visitor center
GWWO/Bob Creamer Photography
The entrance to the visitor center
Exhibits in the Visitor Center, designed by Haley Sharpe Design
GWWO/Bob Creamer Photography
Exhibits in the Visitor Center, designed by Haley Sharpe Design
Master Plans and Floor Plans
GWWO
Master Plans and Floor Plans

The architects brought another visceral element to the visitor experience with their choice of different floor coverings. The exhibit areas are carpeted: “When you’re in the exhibits, your foot drop is silent, you hide,” says Reed. “When you go out on the way back, you’re on a wooden floor, so you’re much more visible – you’re exposed, out in the open.”

For GWWO, the project was an opportunity to merge different areas of practice. “We believe the best stories are told [by relying on] tight integration of landscape architecture and exhibit design,” says Reed. “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 challenging stories.

Bonny J. Streater