Mostly yes, we think. With a design from CTA Architects Engineers of Billings directly mimicking next-door Old Faithful Inn, the new Visitor Education Center incorporates the latest in green design, already winning designation from the U.S. Green Building Council for Gold LEED certification, one notch below the top Platinum rating. (We’re guessing the project got dinged on the points system for transit and recycling issues related to the relatively remote location of the facility.) Sitting on the same site as the old Visitor Center, that concrete monstrosity dating from the 1960s, the new Visitor Education Center serves several goals: a gathering place for the Yellowstone community, an entry point for visitors interested in hitting the geysers, and adding some sorely needed space for the National Park Service at the busiest part of the Park. It truly was a labor of love for the Yellowstone community: $15 million of the $27 million cost of design and construction came from the nonprofit Yellowstone Park Foundation.
The main entrances to the new Visitor Education Center face Old Faithful Geyser itself and the opposite side of the building. Large windows in a multistory atrium rise above a large hall in the center of the building; the new Ranger station, complete with high-tech display of geyser eruption times, is located here. It’s a more accessible spot for folks to chat with Rangers than the previous Visitor Center, and rightly it’s the first thing you see when you walk in from the Old Faithful side.
Once in, you have your choice of three destinations. To one side is the larger Yellowstone Association store and the auditorium; to the other is the exhibit hall, with a smaller kids’ area to the side. We suspect this is where most visitors will end up: while there’s plenty of information about thermals at the actual thermal features, the new Visitor Education Center build on this with more detailed information.
The exhibit hall crams in many displays detailing the Yellowstone thermal features, as well as some limited information on animals and the history of the Park. The stress is on interactive features; multiple video monitors displays information on noteworthy thermal features, while other virtual stations provide additional information about the Park.
The model of a working geyser.
The kids’ area features a working geyser as its centerpiece. It’s clear NPS officials consider education to the centerpiece of this area: it’s designed for presentations as much as anything else.
As noted, the place was crammed during the opening. It’s already changed how people park in the general area – forget about easy parking behind Old Faithful Inn and beside the Snow Lodge on a busy day — and it’s sure to be a continuing attraction.
Still, there’s the sense that some opportunities were missed. First, there’s a lot of space devoted to the main entry hall and not enough to the exhibit hall, where the offerings seem crammed, not flowing together at all. The second floor is the province of the Park Service, we’re told, so the only public spaces are on the ground floor. For a building with such a large footprint, we might have expected a little more public space.
And the choice of architectural style can also be questioned. Sure, it’s a popular move to mimic the “parkitecture” of neighboring Old Faithful Inn; the new building is a bookend to an old classic.
But if you look at the history of Old Faithful Inn, you’ll see that Robert Reamer invented the style virtually on the fly, adapting to the materials at hand while constructing an architectural language that’s been played out in other National Parks. It’s such a paradigm that Disney felt no compunction in borrowing it for a DisneyWorld theme hotel.
Similarly, the Jackson Lake Lodge in nearby Grand Teton National Park was attacked as being too cutting-edge when it opened in 1955; ironically, it was attacked for not fitting in the parkitecture style of the area. That building, of course, has aged remarkably well and is a architectural highlight for anyone visiting the area.
Old Faithful Inn and Jackson Lake Lodge were successful because they pushed the envelope. There’s no pushing the envelope with the new Visitor Education Center.
But you know what? Parkitecture is what people like. Folks at the opening were thrilled with the new Visitor Education Center, and why not? It’s the equivalent of comfort food. Sure, the foodies may sneer at a old-fashioned meat loaf and a side of creamed corn, but admit it: after the end of many a hard day, there’s nothing better than that slice of meat loaf with the ketchup on top. The vast majority of folks visiting Yellowstone National Park will count a stroll through the Visitor Education Center as a highlight of their trip: neophytes will appreciate the exhibits, kids will love the working geyser, and experienced geyser gazers will appreciate the better access to Rangers. On that level the new Visitor Education Center is a welcome addition to the Old Faithful area, one that serves its multiple purposes well.