September 25, 2020

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center Named AIA Maryland Public Building of the Year

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center Named AIA Maryland Public Building of the Year

GWWO is thrilled to announce that the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center has received an Excellence in Design Merit Award and been named the 2020 AIA Maryland Public Building of the Year.

The organization’s most prestigious award, the Public Building of the Year may be any built project commissioned by a government or non-profit agency, within the State of Maryland, created with a civic purpose. Chosen from over 100 submissions, the jury praised the building’s design, expressing:

“There are so many aspects of this project that made it the winner of Building of the Year. In terms of design excellence, the forms and organization of the structure not only fit within the landscape but also help tell Harriet Tubman’s story. The choice of exterior materials and how they will weather over time worked not only as a beautiful pallet, but also as a strong metaphor.”

While one of the most famous figures of the resistance movement with significant name recognition, little is known about the details of Tubman’s life. “We started the project ten years into a community-based effort to recognize Tubman's birthplace and the unique story of the Underground Railroad in the Choptank River Region,” notes Chris Elcock, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, GWWO Associate Principal and Project Manager. “Our team spent many weeks touring related sites, meeting with community agencies, learning from historians, and even participating in a runaway slave reenactment program before even thinking about the design. Personally, the stakes had never been higher, and our research-based process had to be as thorough as possible.” The resulting design offers visitors a truly immersive experience—via an integrated site, building, and exhibit design—and authentic discovery of the landscape and sites where Tubman lived and operated on the Underground Railroad. 

Conceived as a series of abstracted forms that can be interpreted in many ways—from the farmstead vernacular of the region to stations along the Underground Railroad—the new complex immerses visitors in the story of Tubman’s life. Functioning as the principal point of welcome to a national heritage corridor of interrelated sites, the center engages and educates visitors, while also orienting them to other sites in the area and encouraging further exploration.

Joined by a shared entry plaza and terrace, the two structures of the complex, one exhibit and one administrative, frame a view north, expressing the importance of traveling northward to escape the circumstances of slavery. The space between the buildings grows wider as visitors venture north—a metaphor for freedom—and the view to the south is truncated by the splay of the buildings, suggesting a sense of oppression that would have been associated with the slaveholding states. Clad in zinc panels, the three exhibit volumes will develop a dull, self-healing patina—a similar outcome hoped for the nation’s attitude towards slavery—while the southern volume, finished in wood siding, will weather to gray overtime.

Just as the journey north was not a linear one for those seeking freedom, the design of the interpretive spaces allows visitors to take detours away from the main route to discover and learn. Views out offer a constant connection to the Blackwater landscape, the memorial garden, and freedom, enhancing the overall interpretive experience. Upon exiting the center, visitors are directed to the memorial garden where they are offered a direct route north, that then weaves through the site via various loops and returns—a metaphor for Tubman’s willingness to return to the region. Views along the pathway change from wooded areas to fields and marshes, all of which were part of the daily life of the free and enslaved at the time.

“To have been involved in a project that is so pivotal to our nation’s history has been an honor for all of us at GWWO” said Alan Reed, FAIA, LEED AP, GWWO President and Design Principal.  “Seeing the impact of the new visitor center on Tubman’s descendants and on visitors as they learn more about Tubman’s heroism, selflessness, and spirit, makes us proud to have played a small part in carrying her legacy forward for generations to come.”

This year’s jury focused not only on the building’s transformational design, but also its impact on the community and the environment. Through the integrated design, visitors understand this land is essentially unchanged, enhancing the visitor experience by transporting them to the time of the Underground Railroad, while promoting conservation strategies. The jury noted “Regarding sustainability, the project’s water and energy conservation design moves and landscape choices add an additional layer of design excellence.” The jury especially applauded “the innovative water use strategy of using rainwater in the fire suppression system and incorporating wastewater treatment on site in the form of the Bermed Infiltration Pond. And equally as important is the community impact this project accomplishes. We are living in a time when Americans need to understand our history and celebrate its heroes such as Tubman whose actions affected so many people. She continues to be a role model and this Visitor Center does her story justice.”

Since opening, the visitor center has reached visitors of all ages and backgrounds, welcoming over 215,000 visitors—from all 50 states and over 60 countries along with over 150 school groups—exceeding its projected annual attendance. The project's design excellence has also been recognized by AIA Baltimore and AIA Chesapeake and the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the building and site one of their "40 Under 40: The Next Generation of HIstoric Places." For more information on the design of the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center, please click here. To plan your visit, please visit For more information on the AIA Maryland Excellence in Design Awards, please see here.

Kiersten Howe

Kiersten Howe

Associate / Communications Manager