Text description provided by the architects. Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is the birthplace of America’s national anthem and one of the nation’s most significant historic landmarks. The Fort, the National Anthem and the flag, together and individually, help us to understand how the United States was created, defended, and preserved. It was with this context and these rich national symbols in mind that the design team conceived the expression for the new visitor center.
“GWWO specializes in contextual design. We strive for each of our buildings to reflect the unique mission, spirit and character of our individual clients and their stories,” says Alan Reed, president and design principal from GWWO Architects, the Baltimore-based architectural firm that designed the new building.
The new 17,655 sqf visitor center creates a moving experience for visitors, which is achieved through the exhibits and interpretation, as well as through the design of the building itself.
Building Location & Visitor Approach
The new visitor center is positioned at the east end of the site's pre-existing parking lot, which has been redesigned and enhanced. Removal of the former visitor center―which was located within the Park’s cultural landscape―and siting of the new building outside of the original 1814 reservation boundary has helped restore the Park’s primary historic area. Visitor flow is enhanced, with visitors arriving from the Fort’s main entrance on East Fort Avenue and from the water taxi entrance on the site’s north side both enjoying an improved entry sequence with uninterrupted views to the historic star fort.
Architecture & Landscape
The primary inspiration for the new visitor center’s design came from our nation’s most significant symbol—the Star-Spangled Banner. The two curved walls of the building reflect the dynamic nature of the flag and all it represents. The juxtaposition of the two walls—clad in distinct materials—invokes the meanings behind the flag’s stripes. Brick, strong and solid, expresses the hardiness and valor represented by the red stripes, while the thin and more delicate zinc façade expresses the purity and innocence represented by the white.
The curved walls also acknowledge the Fort and its flag. From the west, the upward slope of the brick wall, as revealed by the receding zinc wall, directs the visitor’s eye toward the flag, creating a visual dialogue between the Fort and the visitor center. The contrasting volumes of the walls and the gentle change of their heights in opposite directions suggest a sense of motion. This movement is further enhanced by the landscape design, by Mahan Rykiel Associates of Baltimore. Site design incorporates berms, plantings, and vegetation that mimic the gentle curves in plan and vary in height seasonally, while the paving patterns and curved pathways extend the east and west walls into the site.
Inside the building, a light-filled lobby with central information desk greets visitors and serves as the organizing element from which public spaces, including the exhibits, multi-purpose education room and retail shop, are accessed. The second level houses park offices and support spaces, including a break room with exterior terrace that offers picturesque views to the Fort.