Honoring Historical Legacies: Reshaping the Visitor Center Experience

by Eric Ward, Erik Johnson, Danielle Encela

November 12, 2021

For over a century, the National Park Service (NPS) has safeguarded the natural and cultural places that form the core of the American identity and tell our collective stories. Visitor centers play a critical role in this storytelling, often serving as front doors to the sites that welcome NPS’ 318 million annual visitors. They provide the spark for visitors of all ages to make a park visit exciting, educational, and fun.

Whether designing a new visitor center or modernizing an existing one, EYP is proud to partner with NPS to rethink the visitor experience through the lens of modern, engaging architecture that respects the significance and sensitivity of historic sites. The visitor centers at Antietam National Battlefield and Minute Man National Historical Park demonstrate our commitment to enhancing the user experience and exploring what’s possible for a new era in America’s national parks.

Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center: Modernizing an Iconic Design

Constructed in 1962, the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center welcomes 350,000 visitors a year to one of the most intact battlefields in the U.S., where the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War became a key turning point in American history.

To restore the center’s original character and improve accessibility, the EYP team designed new exterior spaces and two new additions to accommodate guest and ranger needs; EYP also provided a complete renovation of the entire building – the first comprehensive rehabilitation of the facility in nearly 60 years. EYP’s renovation brings the building up to AABAS standards that govern federal buildings so people of all abilities can easily access the center. New ramps and graded sidewalks allow greater accessibility, and a new Interpretive Plaza near the front entrance includes exterior exhibits to orient visitors and introduce the battlefield even when the building is closed.

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The design of the new additions reflects the facility’s original Mission 66 modernist architectural heritage and provides supportive infrastructure for an enhanced visitor experience. “We recreated the spirit of the original architecture while also making it lighter and more open in character,” said Project Architect Erik Johnson. “By expanding the front lobby with an aluminum and glass storefront, which allows an increased amount of natural light into the space, EYP provided an enhanced entry sequence that greets visitors as soon as they walk through the front doors.” 

The team also designed a new addition to accommodate the rangers. The design approach maintains the exterior palette of natural stone and painted siding while providing large new windows for the office area. “Every ranger now has a view of the battlefield from workplace spaces filled with natural light,” mentioned Job Captain Danielle Encela.

Upgraded circulation and exhibit spaces inspire reverence for the site’s interpretive exhibits and honor the center’s original character. A new elevator was added to enhance accessibility within the building, including improved access to the Observation Level, which features sweeping views of the Battlefield and serves as the meeting place for ranger-led tours of the site.

Minute Man National Historical Park: Cultivating a New Design to Honor a Centuries-Old Legacy

The Minute Man National Historical Park brings to life the story of the “shot heard ‘round the world” and the opening battle of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775. The park’s four-mile road preserves the original route between Lexington and Concord, where Paul Revere first rode his horse to warn residents that the British were coming.

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Early Conceptual Sketch

The Minute Man Visitor Center was built in 1975 for the 200th anniversary of Revere’s ride. In preparation for the upcoming 250th anniversary in 2025, NPS turned to EYP to develop concepts for a new visitor center that could better serve the expected surge of history buffs.

“It is critical that the new building fits in with the Battle Road ‘witness structures,’ which include homes, structures, and taverns that were there in 1775,” said Project Director Eric Ward. “The visitor center has to resonate with that historical context and fit in by being the right scale and massing,” said Ward. “But we also want it to be a contemporary design with a lot of glass, offering views of and connection to the surrounding historic landscape.”

Focusing on the visitor experience develops lasting connections between guests and historical sites. The design should orient tourists to the park, provide a brief background of its historic significance, and set the stage for what’s to come. “Our concept design is created around a clear, fully accessible pathway that begins in the parking area, progresses through the visitor center orientation exhibits, and out to historic Battle Road that is only steps away,” Ward said.

Older visitor centers were often conceived as small museums, with elaborate exhibitions and audio-visual presentations. That approach now is considered too expensive to build and too staff-intensive to operate. “We are trying to design smaller buildings with more focused exhibits and an emphasis on self-service displays,” says Ward.  “Our concepts locate kiosks and wayside exhibitions outside, where they are available to visitors after hours.”

As hubs for orientation and education, visitor centers are indispensable to the curious park visitor. The activities of approaching an information desk, studying museum exhibits, taking in a view, and then heading to the attraction are tried and true. But EYP’s designs take the visitor’s experience to the next level by prioritizing accessibility and inclusion, making information easily accessible to visitors, and authentically connecting facilities to the site by respecting historical context and using local materials. Through these visitor center projects, EYP has partnered with NPS to help meet its mission of educating visitors and exploring the American identity for generations to come.

Eric Ward

Project Director

Erik Johnson, AIA, LEED AP

Senior Project Architect

Danielle Encela, Associate AIA, LEED Green Associate

Job Captain