Established in 1885, New York’s Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest continually operating state park in the United States. And while the park’s current visitors center isn’t nearly as old (it’s only been around since the 1980s), the facility has certainly seen better days with park officials referring to it as “inadequate, cramped, and outdated.”
On April 23, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation formally announced the new Niagara Falls State Park Visitors Center, a state-of-the-art facility that can better accommodate the roughly 9 million (pre-COVID) annual visitors who descend upon the historic park and its titular trinity of transnational waterfalls. The project has been on the drawing board for some time now and is only now being made official, complete with design renderings and an estimated completion date of spring 2023.
“This new visitor center continues the stunning transformation of New York’s most famous and most visited state park, welcoming the millions of tourists who visit each year while highlighting the unique history and beauty of the park and the entire Western New York community,” said Cuomo in last Friday’s statement. The new Niagara Falls Visitor Center is a cornerstone project of the governor’s $440 million NY Parks 100 initiative first announced in this year’s State of the State proposals.
Spanning 29,000-square-feet, the $46 million facility is designed by GWWO Architects, a Baltimore-based firm that’s no stranger to overseeing site-sensitive visitor and interpretive centers in cherished, deeply historic, and sometimes topographically challenging locales be it Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center or the Pikes Peak Summit Visitor Center in Colorado. The latter visitor center is set to open this summer, marking the conclusion of the highest construction project in the U.S.
The 35-year-old current—and eventually former, once the new space opens—visitor center will not be demolished but retained and reused as an exhibition and multi-purpose community gathering space according to Buffalo-based CBS affiliate WIVB. The program for the GWWO-designed replacement building includes ample, bi-level space for interactive exhibits showcasing the vast natural and cultural history of Niagara Falls, a spacious lobby and ticketing area, a gift shop, cafe/concession spaces, restrooms, and outdoor terraces and an overlook. Per a news release from GWWO, the center will “offer an immersive experience, both inside the building and out, taking visitors on a journey through time, spanning the eras of geological formation and human impacts on the falls, bringing to life the many voices and perspectives of those experiencing its beauty and grandeur, and highlighting the flora and fauna of the environs.”
Situated within a sloped site that provides a natural point of transition between the park’s formal entrance gardens and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s Lower Grove area of the park, the building will be realized with concrete, glass, and steel and also incorporate a number of natural materials including wood and limestone sourced from the Niagara escarpment. Likened to a “giant sheet of water,” the center’s glass facade “maximizes views and offers continuous connections to the falls throughout the lobby and exhibit areas.”
Elaborated the firm:
“The process of integrating the design of the building, exhibits, and site from the project’s conception results in intuitive wayfinding, promoting the individual experience, and allowing visitors to select their own path and level of discovery. Interpretation throughout the site will naturally encourage visitors to learn more about the many stories associated with the falls. Through planned collaborations with local partners and other regional attractions, visitors will learn about local and regional offerings expanding their interpretive experience and promoting tourism throughout the region.”
Sustainability also played an integral role in the design of the new center. Bifacial photovoltaic solar panels positioned along the perimeter of the building’s roof will be viewable from below as visitors pass beneath the main entrance canopy; the visibility of the panels aids in “reinforcing the historic connection to power generation at the falls” according to GWWO. Among a slew of other sustainable features employed to minimize the highly trafficked building’s environmental footprint, it will also boast a green roof and rainwater catchment system used to irrigate the surrounding landscape.
“Whether a visitor heads directly to the falls, enjoys the amenities inside the visitor center, or immerses him/herself within the exhibits, the hope is that all will leave transformed by experiencing the majesty of the nature that surrounds this site,” said Alan Reed, GWWO principal in charge of the project, in a statement.
The project’s $46 million price tag includes $8 million in grant funding from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. Construction works is expected to kick off this fall.