A Pathway to Nature
Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens in Midland, Mich.
By Dave Ramont
In 1899, Herbert H. Dow, founder of the Dow Chemical Company, and his wife Grace A. Dow, herself a teacher and philanthropist, established a home to settle and raise their children in Midland, Mich. More land was acquired, and eventually what became known as Dow Gardens grew to 110 acres. For generations, Dow's descendants lived on the property, now owned by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation and opened to the public in 2004.
In October 2018, Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens opened, a 54-acre forest of native northern pine. The experience-oriented, year-round installation was designed by Philadelphia-based Metcalfe Architecture and Design, made possible by a $20 million donation from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation.
New features at Whiting Forest include a playground, amphitheater and café. The new Forest Classroom is dedicated to learning and programming, while the Visitor Center is a restored and repurposed midcentury modern house by architect Alden B. Dow. A dynamic network of paths, bridges and tree canopy walkways with interactive features and gathering points allow visitors to immerse themselves in nature. Approximately three miles of ADA-accessible hard-surface pathways wind through Dow Gardens and Whiting Forest, but visitors are not constrained to the trails; they can wander the grounds and find their own opportunities for introspection.
Macauley (Mike) Whiting Jr., a Dow descendant and president of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, grew up on the property and described how Whiting Forest was once his backyard. "My brother and I spent countless hours there, climbing trees, catching frogs, skating on the ponds, even building our own cabin—we created our own adventures. When conceptualizing the Whiting Forest project, we focused on how to bring that childhood experience to others and how to instill in people an appreciation of nature."
Alan Metcalfe, principal at Metcalfe Architecture and Design, said that indeed the whole approach at Whiting Forest was born out of Mike Whiting's childhood experience of playing in nature and wishing to bring that experience to others. "Mike Whiting and his wife Sarah championed the nature walk and canopy. He saw the Tree Adventure at Morris Arboretum that we designed (in Philadelphia) and liked how unusual it was."
The 1,400-foot-long canopy walk—the longest in the nation—is the centerpiece of the new installation. Accessible for all ages and abilities, it has three arms ending at unique viewing platforms. A 40-foot-high platform with an orchard view has railings and a glass floor, while another 25-foot platform offers a lovely pond view, where visitors can observe, mingle and reflect. One area features a large cargo net in a grove of spruce trees 25 feet high where visitors can sprawl, walk and jump safely.
"Netting presents its own challenges," said Metcalfe. "It demands a high-strength structure and calculating the sag of the netting."
When constructing the canopy walk, another big challenge was movement in the structure, according to Metcalfe. "To make it move enough to be exciting and have perceived risk, and yet stable enough to meet requirements of bridge construction. Aluminum grating enables visitors to see through to the ground, which is just scary to people." Metcalfe added that the same is true of glass, which has a greater perception of risk because of its smooth texture. "Movement in the structure creates vibrations, which in turn causes the rebar 'sticks' to make an intentional clanging that adds to the perception of danger and risk. These sensory experiences keep people coming back."
Metcalfe's firm has extensive experience with nature-play installations, and the 13,600-square-foot playground is a big attraction. There are water features and a sandy beach, swings and play structures, rocks to provide a natural challenge and invite play, and climbing walls with poured-rubber surfacing for safety. "Kids are naturally attracted to the tunnels we designed; there is a sense of discovery and adventure in entering one opening and emerging from another opening," said Metcalfe. "The cargo netting references the experience of the tree canopy walk. Using the wide slides lets kids feel the rush of wind in their hair."
Herbert H. Dow tinkered with the landscape, discovering which flowers, shrubs and trees would grow well in the sandy soil. He also developed new methods for fruit culture, which is why the orchards are central to the story. "(He) had a hobby of creating and raising variants of apples and crabapples, and the orchard was created to reflect the history of the different apple trees," said Metcalfe. "The orchard is also a family-focused location for picnicking and spending time in a bucolic natural setting." There are also herb, rose, pollinator and color gardens around the site.
Metcalfe said they strove to offer opportunities for visitors to come together. "It's about being together and being physically active: to having overnight stays in the pond arm, to reaching out to the more unsettled areas of the forest, to sitting and contemplating around the fire pit."
We think Herbert and Grace would heartily approve.
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