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The new visitor center at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

The new Visitor Center will help the Arboretum better serve its more than 250,000 annual guests.

New Visitor Center opens at Arboretum

Design inspired by noted Minnesota architect Edwin Lundie

Published on January 25, 2005

After a decade of planning and two years of construction, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum opened its new 45,000-square-foot Visitor Center on January 25. With its soaring McQuinn Great Hall, visitor information hub, and environmentally friendly operational systems, the new visitor center will serve as a formal entry point to the Arboretum's 1,040 acres of display gardens, extensive northern-hardy plant collections, and diverse natural landscapes.

The Visitor Center allows the Arboretum, a part of the University's College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences (COAFES), to meet the growing needs of its guests.

"The existing Snyder Building, which opened in 1974, was designed to function primarily as a research and education facility," says Arboretum director Peter Olin. "Never would the founders have envisioned that, 30 years later, the Arboretum would be serving more than 250,000 visitors annually--and growing."

Miniature Magical Forest

Visitors to the Arboretum's new Great Hall will be greeted by an enchanting miniature garden and forest. This 20' x 15' landscape, created in 1:12-inch scale (the same scale of a dollhouse), intertwines plants with fantasy, and explores a growing trend in gardening. The display will be open through February 27.

This living, magical landscape combines a forest, made of dwarf conifers, bonsai, and alpine plants, a multi-tiered waterfall that flows into a stream and pond, and an operating railway that runs through the landscape. It also features a thatch-roofed cottage and garden surrounded by a faux-stone wall, complete with tiny garden accessories including benches and working fountains.

"Miniature gardens are growing in popularity with gardening enthusiasts--from the novice to the seasoned plant collector," says Kathryn Swenson, who designed the garden. "They bring a special magic to small spaces, like balcony gardens and pots, and can be easily designed into large landscapes or yards. Older gardeners who find gardening to be a more difficult physical task may discover that creating a vast, complex landscape on a small scale is every bit as fulfilling."

During weekend family programs, children can explore their imagination and plant a colorful pocket garden to take home. Activities take place at the Marion Andrus Learning Center, Saturdays and Sundays, 12 to 3 p.m., January 8 to February 27.

Viewing the miniature garden is free with paid general admission ($7 adults, ages 15 and under free, members free). For information about upcoming activities and events, see the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Web site or call 952-443-1400.

The new Visitor Center echoes the character of the Arboretum's historic Leon C. Snyder Building, designed by renowned 20th-century Minnesota architect Edwin Lundie. Best known for his North Shore cabins, Lundie was devoted to fine craftsmanship and detail. His use of heavy, visible timbers and warm, earthy colors are evident in the Snyder Building, as is his inspiration from English Cotswold cottages and French country homes.

Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson, associate architects SALA Architects, and architectural consultant Scott Berry designed the new building to bring the outdoors in and provide an inviting place for visitors to begin their Arboretum experience.

"[Lundie's] inspiration behind the Snyder Building was to develop his philosophy of building a home in a garden," says Lee Tollefson of Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson. "In designing the new Visitor Center, we wanted to expand upon that philosophy and create the look of a small village, or hamlet, placed in the landscape."

Green features

Windows are situated in the Visitor Center to help natural daylight illuminate the building. An automated lighting system increases electrical light when outdoor conditions become cloudy or darken, or dims electrical light when more natural daylight filters into the building. This system creates a warm atmosphere for visitors, while reducing energy costs.

The new center also uses geothermal energy to provide heating and cooling 365 days a year by tapping stable temperatures (42 to 55 degrees) in the earth's shallow surface. G round-source heat pumps use small amounts of electricity to move existing heat from the ground into the building during the winter, and heat from the building into the ground during the summer. This heat energy is transferred through a food-grade antifreeze solution that flows through 250 wells, each 150 feet deep, under the Arboretum's main parking lot. The wells are interconnected to form a closed-loop system so no ground-water pollution can occur. Geothermal energy is a free, renewable resource that has low impact on the environment and is highly efficient, resulting in significant energy savings for the Arboretum well into the future.

As part of the Arboretum's parking lot expansion in 2003, two model gardens were installed to show visitors how to filter storm water naturally and protect the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes. The Storm Water Run-Off Model demonstrates how parking lot surfaces with different levels of porosity absorb storm water run-off. The Rain Garden Model is a sandy-soil, planted depression into which storm water is funneled. Sand and silt from the parking lot settles out and plants absorb nitrogen and phosphorus. Bacteria in the soil convert gasoline and oil into simple organic compounds before water filters into the groundwater below. The model shows that while rain gardens are environmentally beneficial, they can also be aesthetically pleasing.

Great Hall

The most dramatic space within the Visitor Center is the McQuinn Great Hall, soaring 40 feet high and built with an intricate framework of Douglas fir and "pinned" timber trusses. This Lundie-style support system is not only functional, but displays another element of nature's beauty. Large windows, skylights, and a cupola allow natural light to illuminate the space and provide beautiful garden views.

Serving as an information hub, the McQuinn Great Hall features a large, wall-mounted map of the Arboretum's 1,040 acres and interactive touch-screen kiosks that will, in time, allow visitors to locate plants, gardens, memorials, and exhibits on Arboretum grounds and generate a customized map via GPS technology. For those who prefer humans to computers, personal assistance is available at a spacious reception desk staffed by employees, volunteers, and master gardeners for questions ranging from membership to horticulture.

Outdoor terraces and gardens

Among the six new landscaped areas surrounding the Visitor Center is the Wright Messerli Terrace, which combines plants and water to form a contemplative space. Plants in drifts of white, granite pavers shaped in a labyrinth pattern, and a water feature create a soothing sensory experience. Fragrant plants, including lilies, mock orange, daphne, and wisteria, enhance the restful character of the terrace. And the Sweatt Terrace greets visitors returning to the building from Three-Mile Drive. A rose garden surrounded by mixed beds of cool-colored perennials, such as clematis, iris, and rhododendron, creates a charmingly formal plaza. Large-scale windows offer diners picturesque garden views of the Newton Dining Terrace. Native woodland plants and a waterfall will offer visitors additional refreshment while they dine. A rustic, brick fireplace opens to the main restaurant and a small, private dining area. The cafeteria-style restaurant features garden-fresh, seasonal ingredients grown at the Arboretum and delivered fresh from local growers and creameries. Visitors can select from a variety of homemade soups, fresh salads and sandwiches, as well as hot entrees and grilled items. A new breakfast menu offers omelets, homemade pastries, fresh fruit, and signature popovers.

Future plans

Looking ahead, the Arboretum plans to acquire as much nearby watershed property as possible. Land acquisitions are essential to the future environmental health of the Arboretum's grounds, gardens, collections, and research plots. And for a taste of summer in the winter, noted Minnesota architect Ralph Rapson has designed the Crystalline Conservatory that will act as a gathering place, educating and inspiring visitors throughout the year. An extraordinary centerpiece for an invigorated Arboretum, the conservatory will feature interactive exhibits, plants, and a park with grass and quiet places to sit, read, and picnic while Mother Nature huffs and puffs outside.

The new Visitor Center was funded by the $65 million Comprehensive Capital Campaign, a major fundraising effort and part of the University of Minnesota's Campaign Minnesota.

For more information on the Arboretum, including directions and hours, see the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Web site.

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