Award Winner - July/August 2003
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Wish You Were Here

Jacob V. Brower Visitor's Center
Itasca State Park in Itasca, Minn.

By definition, a visitor's center is supposed to welcome travelers, but it can also be a teaser of sorts for what's waiting to be explored.


The Jacob V. Brower Visitor's Center at Itasca State Park in Itasca, Minn., is definitely of the teaser variety.

"The story that we tell them inside the building educates visitors about what's outside in the park," says Mike Kovacovich, park manager for the Department of Natural Resources. "Even though it's a new building, it really fits into the whole park."

There's plenty of vivid park history to cover. Established in 1891, Itasca is the second oldest state park in the United States. Not only does the park contain the headwaters of the Mississippi River, it's also home to rare, remnant old-growth pine forest and the largest red pine tree in Minnesota. The entire park is registered as a historic site and contains many fine examples of Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) projects from the 1930s.

"The remnant ecosystems in the park are very unique from a natural history perspective, but we also have an extremely rich cultural history," Kovacovich says. "We've never had an interpretive center here, we've just had smaller interpretative sites. It's been discussed for years. Things just finally fell right."

The visitor's center was designed to be a 21st-century complement to the area's natural beauty as well as the many historic WPA-CCC structures located throughout the park.

While hoping to pay homage to the WPA-CCC projects, planners however didn't want to copy the WPA-CCC projects outright nor did they want something that was too modern. An adaptive balance was needed for the rustic-yet-charming visitor's center.

"It's a contemporary version of the CCC structures," says Bruce Cornwall, design principal of the project. "It's an interesting twist."

Craftsmanship, simplicity of design and the use of natural materials were all crucial. So were the educational offerings inside.

"We were told in the beginning that it was very important that the architecture in the building be created around the exhibits," Cornwall says. Not the other way around. "Our building had to focus on the exhibits, and the architecture should not upstage them. We worked closely with the exhibit designers to achieve that goal."

Second banana or not, the architecture is still impressive.

"Even though it's a very large building, you don't realize how large it is until you walk in and see the long, expansive view with the log-beam construction," Kovacovich says. "If you stand there, you'll hear lots of oohs and ahhs as visitors come in."

In fact, there's been a huge supply of oohs and ahhs recently, with 580,000 visitors to the park last year, which marked the opening of the visitor's center. That's up from the usual half-million plateau the park has reached for the past two decades or so. But the visitor's center plays another important role.

"We used the building itself as an interpretive tool, right down to the paint on the wall," Kovacovich says. The structure was conceived to be a model for sustainable design, minimizing its environmental impact and promoting resource conservation and the use of recycled materials.

And it's evident everywhere from the eco-friendly cabinets and countertops and recycled carpet to the efficient radiant heating and high-rated insulation.

The wood veneer panels located high on the ceiling are manufactured from a bio-composite material using soybean, wheat and sunflower by-products rather than wood, while the resilient linoleum flooring in the main room is made from linseed oil, jute, cork and wood particles.

The beautiful red pine columns supporting the timber trusses were harvested from the site and reused in the facility. Special care was taken with the drainage patterns around the buildings and parking lots to make sure that contaminated water will not run into Lake Itasca.

"I think this is a very good example of how public projects work well," says Cornwall of the public/private team. "[The DNR] was a committed client that stood behind the project and was committed to quality. They were really good about red tape, very good with making decisions."

Interestingly, some of the project's unique beauty can be credited to the state of Minnesota, which mandates that 1 percent of construction costs for any state project must go toward incorporating artwork into the building.

As an example, the visitor's center boasts a decorative wrought-iron front gate created by a Minnesota artist that depicts the park's flora and fauna.

"It serves a function, but it's not just utilitarian, it's beautiful," Cornwall says. "In this case we merged both quite seamlessly."

"Unique but beautifully nestled in its setting. Green in all ways."

—Mark Bodien

"Nice use of wood and natural light. Emphasis on 'sustainable design' is very good. Stayed true to program with environmental ethic in how the building and materials were handled."

—Philip Neeley

Submitted by: Bentz/Thompson/Rietow, Inc. in Minneapolis

Size: 14,300 square feet

Project cost: $2.4 million

Quick tour:

  • 850-square-foot Trail Center with two fireplaces for park orientation, general visitor information and relaxation
  • 350-square-foot specialty retail shop for park-specific and nature-themed purchases
  • Visitor Information Station
  • Vending machine and restroom facilities
  • 240-square-foot video room for themed audio-visual loop presentations
  • 3,800 square feet of exhibit space with interactive themed exhibits about the Civilian Conservation Corp, indigenous peoples, early park history and local pine forest ecosystems
  • 2,250-square-foot dividable multipurpose room (with doors leading to self-directed nature paths) with audio-visual support for classes, meetings and demonstrations
  • Administration/naturalist support spaces including offices, workroom, storage and library

Associated Firms

Structural engineers: Beaudette Consulting Engineers

Mechanical/electrical engineers: Ericksen Ellison Associates

Civil engineers: BKBM Engineers, Inc.

Landscape architects: Brauer Associates Ltd.

General contractor: Sherlock Construction

Bio-composite countertops: Environ by Phenix

Cellulose blown insulation: Green Fiber, a Louisiana Pacific Company

Recycled-polyethylene toilet partitions: Santana Products Company

Metered faucets: Bradley Fixture Corporation

Metal halide pendant lighting: Winona Lighting

Recycled carpet: Mohawk

Linoleum: Forbo Marmoleum

Bio-composite plywood: Navy Island Plywood

Custom Metal Gates: Koka Metalsmiths

Exhibits: Discovery Exhibits

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