The Polly Hill Arboretum Visitors’ Center nestles into the existing woodlands of the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha's Vineyard. The two buildings (the information center and the bathroom building) loosely define a space referred to by Polly as “The Holly Grove.” The buildings are linked by a trellis topped with native locust boughs. The trellis provides a restful place under which to sit as well as a transitional zone between the landscape and the interior of the buildings.

The buildings were designed to heighten the visitor’s sense of relationship with the site. Their simple shed forms derive their spatial subtlety and effectiveness through interaction with each other and the surrounding landscape. Like the trees encircling them, the buildings offer an airy interior with dappled light. The complex layering of the trellis, the heavy timber frame, and the perforated planes of the roofs mediate the natural light as the trees do above them.

Architectural elements such as the window seat or the skylight in the information center building help to link the building to its natural site. Frosted glass, slatted walls, extensive clerestory windows and skylights all reinforce the parallels of the visual and physical experience of the interior with the experience of the forest’s interior on the other side of the walls.

The wooden buildings are of heavy timber Douglas fir construction, reminiscent of the old barns of New England. The members of the timber structure are shaped in response to the nearby trees. The building's skin and its structure are kept distinct, reinforcing the layering. The skylight above allows for the "overhead" quality of light which one finds within the forest canopy.

The Visitors’ Center was built with a shallow foundation and an underlayment of insulation.  The insulation forms a blanket over the earth, allowing the temperature of the earth to rise to the level of the shallow foundation. In this way, the design avoids typical foundation excavation, which would have disrupted the tree roots of the nearby Stewartia.

The material palette of stone, Douglas fir, yellow cedar and copper was selected primarily for its durability and graceful weathering. When it rains, the single pitch roofs divert the water into scuppers, which create two small waterfalls. Benches are placed under cover so visitors can shelter themselves from the rain while enjoying the sound and view of the falling water.

The project received the 2001 American Institute of Architects New England Honor Award for Design Excellence, the 2001 Boston Society of Architects Design Honor Award.

Photo Credits:

Chuck Choi Architectural Photography