Howard County's dramatically designed Robinson Nature Center is nearing completion, but County Executive Ken Ulman couldn't wait to show it off in an hourlong sneak-peak tour in Wednesday's blazing sunshine.
Built on a hilly 18 acres of woodland near the stone ruins of a Colonial-era mill on the Middle Patuxent River, the new 25,000-square-foot, $16.7 million facility is to open Sept. 10, Ulman said.
The first thing a visitor sees is a tall concrete retaining wall along the driveway, but the building itself appears deceptively modest from the front, concealing its full height, soaring wooden roof pillars and wide patios — only visible from the sides.
"When you pull up, it looks like a one-story building, but when you go out, it's breathtaking," Ulman said, marveling about how the big building, where exhibits and artifacts will teach visitors about nature, was built into the side of a hill.
The center is named for the late James and Anne Robinson, who lived in a modest home on the land for decades. Anne Robinson died in 2005, but she was determined to preserve the land, located on Cedar Lane at the southern tip of the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, from residential development. A foundation created in her name sold the land to the county for $2 million, and then gave half of the proceeds back as seed money to get planning for the project started.
The resulting building is equipped with loads of environmental features, from underground geothermal heating and cooling systems and permeable paving on the parking lot to solar panels and a planted earthen green garden over different sections of the roof.
"There's just about every green, environmentally friendly feature that was feasible," said county project manager Clara Gouin.
The building is slowly filling with elaborate displays of the natural world intended to engage both children and adults, starting with a large scale map of a blue Chesapeake Bay hand-painted on the surface of the first floor. The map shows visitors where Baltimore, Washington and Howard County are in relation to the bay and its tributaries, making a connection for visitors between landlocked Howard and the eventual repository for everything that runs off county streets and lawns when it rains.
In an alcove at the entrance is an area with a fireplace that will display the Robinson family's history on the site, using wood for the walls salvaged from the family's barn. Another room will show the history of the Simpsonville mill, now partly covered by the bridge that carries Cedar Lane across the river.
At the end of the first-floor hallway, a descending wooden ramp winds around a "tree" with big "leaves" of painted woodland scenes of animals and birds, ending at the bottom with displays of a beaver's den and lighted, pullout shelves with information about what visitors are seeing.
Ulman was taken aback to see a display showing a vulture ready to devour a dead deer, but Gouin defended it as "nature taking its course." Ulman was doubtful. "I'm not sure I want that to be the first thing kids see," he said. There's a small outdoor amphitheater and a small indoor planetarium, though most of the displays haven't been installed yet. A small backyard garden will feature a beehive.
County recreation and parks director John Byrd said there will be a modest entrance fee to help pay the bills and the center can be rented for weddings or other events. Each month, however, the county will waive all entrance fees on certain days so no one will be excluded, he added.