This holiday week, if you and your houseguests are seeking a break from making merry, it is a great time to explore our area’s museums and State Park Visitor Centers. I recently paid a visit to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center and it was a very moving experience. To learn more about Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary life, I read “Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, Bound for the Promised Land” by Kate Clifford Larson and I heartily recommend this book as preparation for your visit.
The woman who later reached international fame as the Underground Railroad’s best known “conductor,” abolitionist, Civil War nurse, Union Army spy, suffragist and humanitarian was born in 1822, the fifth of nine children. Her parents were enslaved to two different masters and the family was further separated when three of the oldest sisters were sold to Deep South plantations-just before six year old Harriet was hired out to cruel masters. As a young teen, Harriet received a head wound from an iron weight thrown by an enraged overseer whose target was a fleeing slave. This wound would cause her permanent damage from debilitating headaches, seizures and sleeping spells for the rest of her life.
The death of her master left her and her remaining siblings at a great risk for being sold. In the fall of 1849, Harriet began to plan her escape by contacting the Underground Railroad Network that had begun in the lower Eastern Shore. Traveling alone and guided by the North Star by night or if the weather was cloudy, the flow of river water to keep her on track, she reached Philadelphia.
Freedom was bittersweet. As she eloquently said much later in her speeches, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” She soon found domestic work and saved money to bring her family out of slavery. Between 1850 and the onset of the Civil War, she would return thirteen times to the Eastern Shore and eventually rescued approximately seventy family and friends. A keen strategist, she began her journeys on Saturday night since the newspapers would not print word of the escapees until Monday when the bounty hunters would then begin their pursuit. She also aided another fifty slaves with detailed instructions for their own journeys. This diminutive woman had an iron will and if “passengers” wanted to turn back along the way, she raised her gun and told them they died there or died free. The communication link of enslaved and free African Americans, white sympathizers, Quakers, abolitionists, a secret network of safe houses and her disguises were all crucial to the success of her journeys.
After serving as a nurse and spy for the Union Army, she settled in Auburn, NY, where she became involved in suffrage and civil rights and was a popular speaker. She was justifiably proud to proclaim that “ I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” Her last humanitarian act was to establish the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged where she died in 1913. After reading about this extraordinary woman, I was eager for my tour of the Visitors Center to learn more about her.
On the day of my visit, as I walked from my car to the entrance of the Visitors Center, I thought about Harriet Tubman’s remarkable life and began to understand how well the architecture interprets her journeys north. GWWO Architects of Baltimore masterful design begins with a series of four linked pavilions oriented on a N/S axis in homage to Harriet’s journeys north to freedom. The pavilions can be interpreted in many ways; I saw them reflecting the Eastern Shore rural vernacular forms of barns, shed and outbuildings and/or “stations” along the way to freedom. Overnight shelter for those on their way to freedom varied from cellars or attics in safe houses, barns, sheds and other outbuildings and the sizes and shapes of the pavilions reflect that diversity of size.
The color of the pavilions cladding material color identifies the administrative and exhibit functions. The wood siding of the administrative pavilion will become gray as it weathers over time and the zinc panels of the exhibit pavilions will also develop a dull patina over time, resulting in a uniform color for the entire complex. The connecting links are clad in wood with horizontal frames of glass with thin mullions. To me, this was an abstract interpretation of how “passengers” might have peeked through spaces between barn siding to keep watch until it was safe to leave their “station” and resume their journey.
The widest link is between the two pavilions that flank the building’s entrance and lobby. The administrative pavilion is angled slightly away from the three exhibit pavilions and contains the bookstore, restrooms and library. As a visitor, you begin your experience in the second pavilion containing the orientation theater, reception area and multi-purpose room. After a short film you then enter the exhibit pavilions that are shifted slightly horizontally so from each area you can always look through windows to reorient yourself north.
The architects and exhibit designers placed windows that varied in size and location to frame the views from within the exhibit area where a portion of the exhibit portrayed an event that may have occurred during Harriet’s life. To reflect Harriet Tubman’s deep religious faith, one exterior wall has an abstract arrangement of window shapes and sizes.
I was so focused upon the exhibits and did not realize at first how the links between each pavilion becomes wider as you move north. I also appreciated how seamless the collaboration between the interior architecture and the exhibit design was and how the interior finishes illustrated the journeys north. Reclaimed wood siding from barns lines the hall leading to the exhibits and the flooring changes from carpeting in the exhibit rooms (quiet, in hiding) and wood (noisy, risk of being seen) in the hall.
The ceiling heights change from nine feet to twenty-six feet under the exposed roof trusses. Just as there was not one route north and some parts were circuitous, the path through the exhibits has many turns that evokes the frenzied travel between the Underground Railroad “stations.” Visitors have the option to walk off the main path for further discovery of the surrounding landscape of the Blackwater area and the memorial garden. Beyond the last pavilion are the woods to the north and freedom.
After I left the Visitors Center, the wayfinding directed me to the memorial garden with its view north along a path that meanders through the site with views of fields, marshes and woods before returning upon itself that evoked Harriet Tubman’s many return trips. It is no surprise that this remarkable LEED Silver project has won numerous awards, including many AIA awards-Bravo to the project team for their thoughtful and beautiful design solution!
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 4:00 pm (EST),4068 Golden Hill Road, Church Creek, MD 21622. Admission is free. With advance notice, groups may request ranger-led tours or interpretative programs. For more information, visit www.dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands or call 410-221-2290. Plan on at least two hours for your tour.
GWWO Architects, www.gwwoinc.com , 410-332-1009
Haley Sharpe Designers, www.haleysharpedesign.com
Photography by Bob Creamer, plans courtesy of GWWO Architects