Baltimore’s Cylburn Arboretum has set June 10 as the opening date for its $7.5 million exhibit center and teaching facility, called the Cylburn Arboretum Friends Nature Education Center.
Representatives of the non-profit Cylburn Arboretum Friends (CAF) joined with public officials Thursday to cut the ribbon on the project, capping more than a year of construction.
The event was also a farewell of sorts for Patricia Foster, who is stepping down next week as executive director of CAF, after seeing the project to completion. The new executive director is Brooke Fritz, who has been the organization’s director of development.
CAF is a volunteer organization that supports the Cylburn Arboretum through stewardship and educational programming. Its members led the effort to create the Nature Education Center, which is owned by the City of Baltimore and leased to CAF. According to Fritz, CAF has raised $6.8 million of the $7.5 million construction budget and is working to secure the rest.
Thursday’s event, which drew more than 50 people, was billed as a “soft opening” that gave donors, board members and other participants a chance to see the education center with all of its exhibits installed. The contractor is still working to address final punch list items so it can open to the public.
Starting June 10 and continuing all summer, the exhibit portion of the Nature Education Center will be open to visitors two days a week, Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The grand opening will be in September. After that, the exhibit space will be open six days a week, every day but Monday. Admission will be free.
In addition to Foster and Rebecca Henry of CAF, speakers at Thursday’s event included Reginald Moore, director of Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks; Baltimore City Council member Sharon Green Middleton; Maryland State Del. Sandy Rosenberg; and Deputy Mayor Letitia Dzirasa.
Largest public garden
With 207 acres at 4915 Greenspring Ave., the Cylburn Arboretum is Baltimore’s largest public garden and the city’s only accredited arboretum, with hundreds of specimen trees, dozens of gardens and three and a half miles of woodland trails. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, it gives visitors a relatively rare opportunity to study botany in an urban area.
Moore, the city parks director, noted that Cylburn Arboretum is not a typical city parks property because it doesn’t have ballfields or basketball courts or swimming pools, but he called it “a jewel of Baltimore City’s parks system” just the same. According to the parks department’s website, it’s a place that emphasizes “relaxation and reflection” rather than physical recreation.
“The Cylburn Arboretum is a unique venue” that provides “an awesome experience,” he said.
Moore praised Foster and others in the volunteer group for their tenacity in getting the education center built and said he is excited about what visitors will learn there.
He said the exhibits, with their “very local focus,” will “help our visitors better understand the natural world” and how the arboretum “fits into the ecological and historical context” of Baltimore.
“We especially want our young people to have the opportunity to explore all that Cylburn has to offer,” he said.
Middleton, the council representative, also saluted CAF members for their collaboration with the parks department.
“Without that partnership with Rec and Parks, I don’t think this place would be the way it is,” she said. “This center is what we need in our city.”
Rosenberg, who lives nearby and helped secure funding from the General Assembly, called it a “worthy legislative initiative.”
Hub of learning
Construction began in April 2022 on the Nature Education Center, which includes the restoration of a two-story carriage house behind historic Cylburn Mansion and a 1,760-square-foot addition called CFG Exhibit Hall, housing educational exhibits related to the arboretum and its setting.
The idea behind the Nature Education Center was to create a place at Cylburn where CAF could expand teaching and training opportunities, increase community initiatives and add exhibits that help visitors understand and appreciate what they see on the grounds.
Constructed in the 1870s and rebuilt around 1912 after a fire, the carriage house had fallen into a state of disrepair. It was renovated to provide a long-term headquarters for CAF, with staff offices, classrooms and meeting space. The center also houses its horticulture program, with a garden work room, yard space and storage areas.
“Our new building…will offer us the opportunity to expand horticultural care for the trees and gardens at Cylburn Arboretum, educate future naturalists, and become a hub of learning,“ CAF said in a statement. “Within an architecturally stunning space, beautiful new exhibits will entice new visitors and engage families who have long loved Cylburn Arboretum.”
The exhibit hall was designed to create opportunities for visitors to learn about the living world at Cylburn, from its old-growth forests to its cultivated gardens. Its primary theme is “the hidden world of trees.”
The exhibits “encourage visitors to move beyond their everyday encounters with trees and, in so doing, uncover a hidden world,” according to CAF’s statement. “Visitors will gaze up at an exposed root system hanging from the ceiling, look down with a “birds eye” view at a tree canopy on the floor, and peel back the inner layers of a tree like pages from a book. Our hope is that this exhibit will pique the curiosity of our guests and enrich their exploration of the arboretum, helping them come to a deeper understanding of the complexities of the natural world.”
Ziger/Snead Architects was the project architect for both the restored carriage house and the addition. Its design, approved by Baltimore’s preservation commission, called for the carriage house’s original features to be restored while mechanical systems were upgraded, and for new exhibit space to be added on one end.
The addition is a symmetrical structure with a pitched metal roof whose peak is taller than the carriage house. From inside, the simple gabled form, with its high ceiling and exposed wood structure, is intended to evoke a canopy of tree branches. The column-free space is also reminiscent of a church chapel.
Access to the exhibit hall is provided by a new entryway and corridor that separates the carriage house from the addition. A stone wall that had been on the exterior of the carriage house is now an interior wall of the expanded center.
Materials used to build the addition’s exterior, including the metal roof, have colors that pick up on the gray, brown and orange-red hues of the stonework in the carriage house, resulting in a building that reads as one harmonious composition.
Both ends of the exhibit hall have large expanses of glass, providing views of a garden landscape in one direction and views out toward trees in the other. According to design team members, the idea was to show the range of environments at Cylburn.
“Designed to be innovative, visually stimulating, beautiful and functional, the [Nature Education Center] affords visitors opportunities to learn more about the natural environment, both wild and cultivated,” the architects say on their website.
“Interpretive experiences encourage visitors to use all their senses to better observe the arboretum, to uncover what is hidden, and to understand how we are responsible for protecting the natural world we live in. Classroom spaces expand the possibilities for programs with a library that supports the arboretum’s generous book collection.”
Jesse Tyson’s estate
The land occupied by the arboretum was originally the estate of businessman Jesse Tyson, who constructed Cylburn mansion starting in 1863.
The mansion and carriage house were both designed by George Frederick, the architect of Baltimore’s City Hall. The surrounding property was so high above sea level and so undeveloped back then that it was possible to see all the way from the house to Baltimore’s harbor several miles away, historians say.
The City of Baltimore acquired the land at auction in the early 1940s. From 1943 to 1957, Tyson’s mansion was used as a home for neglected and abandoned children. After that, the property became the Cylburn Wildflower Preserve and Garden Center. In 1982, it was renamed the Cylburn Arboretum.
CAF and its predecessors have been working with the city since 1954 to maintain the grounds and gardens at Cylburn. In 2019 CAF signed a long-term lease with the city that paved the way for the carriage house to be restored and expanded.
Members of Ziger/Snead’s team were Douglas Bothner; Ann Powell; Jeremy Chinnis; Ty Skeiky and Cyrus Lee.
Other design and construction team members include Intreegue Design Inc., the landscape architect; Lewis Construction, construction management; Metcalfe Architecture and Design and Sari Boren, exhibit design and exhibit text; Art Guild, exhibit construction; CityScape Engineering, civil engineer and stormwater management; Live Green Landscape Associates, landscape contractors, and Melissa Grim, chief horticulturist with the city.
More information about Cylburn, CAF and the Nature Education Center is available at Cylburn.org.