Born into bondage on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in 1849 via the Underground Railroad, returning to the region again and again to guide others out. To commemorate the heroic abolitionist’s connection to the area, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park was carved out of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in 2013—and in 2017, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center was erected on park grounds.
Designed by Baltimore firm GWWO Architects, “the center aims to engage and educate visitors and encourages them to leave with a fuller appreciation of Harriet Tubman’s legacy,” says lead designer and GWWO president Alan Reed. The 15,000-square-foot structure consists of four linked, barn-like volumes. An administrative building is clad in wood, while three exhibition spaces boast zinc siding that will weather yet withstand the elements—symbolizing the endurance of enslaved peoples. “The zinc volumes memorialize their fates,” Reed observes. “Be sold, stay in fear of being sold or run away.”
Entering from the south, visitors experience narrow spaces with low ceilings, reflecting the confines of slavery. As they proceed north through the galleries, the rooms become larger and lighter. Exhibits focus on the area’s history, Tubman’s life and family and the Underground Railroad. A memorial garden combines tailored lawns, knee-high meadows and waist-high woodland, all representing the conditions of concealment—or lack thereof—which Tubman and her escapees faced.
A past winner of AIA awards from the Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay chapters, the LEED Silver-certified center was recently named the 2020 AIA Maryland Public Building of the Year.
Architecture: GWWO Architects, Baltimore, Maryland. CONTRACTOR: W.M. Schlosser Company, Inc., Hyattsville, Maryland. Landscape Architecture: Mahan Rykiel Associates, Inc., Baltimore, Maryland. Text: Julie Sanders. Photography: Robert Creamer and Tom Holdsworth, GWWO Architects.