By Jennifer Pullinger.
Most visitors to New Bern, North Carolina, enter the city via a highway bridge, from which you can see the Trent and Neuse Rivers merge below. The confluence of these two rivers made it a natural choice as a colonial port when newcomers founded the city in 1710. That connection to water—and a reverence for the past—is still influencing how visitors to New Bern experience the city today, as seen through the lens of the new $60 million dollar North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace.
The center, which opened last year after nearly two decades of planning, serves as the visitor gateway to the reconstructed estate and gardens of British Governor William Tryon. “The building really is the result of a lot of thinking about the visitor experience and how it’s changing,” says Tryon Palace Director Kay Williams.
The visitor experience wasn’t the only component in need of revitalization. NCHC occupies a brownfield site and former home of Barbour Boat Works, a manufacturing facility. Quinn Evans encountered a significant amount of site remediation and waterfront recovery in order to clean up the property.
The design team elevated the site to mitigate a recurring flooding problem, which provided an opportunity to deal with contaminated soils by, essentially, capping them.
Although Barbour Boat Works had to be demolished, designers drew on some of its aesthetic and context for the new center. “The question became, how can we put a new building—a turn-of-the-century building—on this site and have it be evocative of the spirit of the place,” says Larry Barr, AIA, a principal and vice president at Quinn Evans.
Given all of the programmatic requirements of the building, Quinn Evans estimated that the new center would require a 60,000 square-foot area if housed in one structure. Given the site’s position between a residential and a commercial zone, that kind of massing would be utterly bombastic. The design team chose, instead, to break down what could have been a massive history center into smaller, connected buildings. “The steel and glass faces the river, but the part that faces the surrounding neighborhood context is mainly masonry and smaller masses rather than one large building so as not to overwhelm neighboring structures,” says Jennifer Amster, AIA, a principal at BJAC, the project’s architect-of-record.
Inside, the building contains multiple spaces linked together by the main entry hall, including the youth-oriented Pepsi Family Center, the Regional History Museum, exhibition and gallery space, an orientation theatre and performance hall, a museum gift shop and a waterfront café. Outside, visitors will find an expansive riverside boardwalk and gardens that restore the once barren boat works landscape.
Naturally, good stewardship of history was integral to the design, but sows stewardship of the environment. Site remediation included constructing wetlands that capture and treat stormwater from the building, as well as the surrounding eight city blocks. An underground cistern recycles the stormwater to replenish the wetlands and provide irrigation for the museum’s landscape. NCHC is now a candidate for LEED Silver certification.
Amster reports that the building also utilizes daylight harvesting to minimize energy consumption. “We estimate that [NCHC] is saving about 15 percent energy use over a baseline building. You hear about projects that have much higher savings, but you also have to keep in mind that this is a project that is designed to Smithsonian standards,” she says.
Keeping up with the Smithsonian is also about keeping up with new ways to engage visitors. In the face of declining visitation and popularity during the initial stages of its planning process, NCHC museum officials recognized the staleness of conventional historic attractions. The “tour experience” at many historic or history-narrative sites had become entirely passive for visitors—often controlled by the museum with a guide or docent leading a group and lending perspective. NCHC sought to reverse the power dynamic. Allowing visitors to move through the site at their own pace, based on their own interests, gives them more control over their relationship to the site.
To achieve that objective, New York-based exhibit planners ESI Design built into the center of the building interactive, multi-media exhibits and activities that invite visitors to participate. Mobile devices known as “history navigators” prompt them forward and provide necessary background information. This is not a new approach—museums and historic sites across the country have been employing mobile devices and multi- and mixed-media exhibits for several years. But, by giving visitors more control, NCHC is, in turn, claiming more control for itself. “[It’s the idea of] history being dynamic and of the audience changing considerably over time with the digital age,” says Amster.
Revitalizing the visitor experience by asking people to actively engage the material, along with an attention to green design, has already produced the desired results—visitation has increased 40 percent.
“We live in an age where a lot of people have embraced technology and at the same time placed less value on history,” says Williams. “So we needed to reestablish that history is a contemporary topic.”
Project: North Carolina History Center (New Bern,North Carolina)
Architect: Quinn Evans Architects
Landscape Architect: EDAW/AECOM
General Contractor: Clancy & Theys Construction Company
Owner: North Carolina Department of CulturalResources
CIVIL ENGINEER: Cole Jenest & Stone
MARINE CONSTRUCTION: Intercostal Diving, Inc.
GRADING, CONCRETE FOUNDATION WALL, & SLAB: Trader Construction Company
EXHIBITION DESIGNER: Edwin Schlossberg, Inc. (ESI)
EXHIBITS: Design & Production, Inc., NorthernLight Production, and Redmon Group
CERAMIC TILE & STONE FLOORING: David Allen Company