Up until 2001, the Rockefellers used to slip away to a former dude ranch near the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, out on a vast tract of land John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased in 1927.
Over time, the family donated most of that land to the National Park Service, hanging on to 1,100 acres, until Laurence S. Rockefeller finally made a gift of that at the dawn of this century.
“It’s an absolutely magical place. It’s like walking on hallowed ground,” said Kevin Burke of Carney Architects, the firm responsible for a new visitors center there. “There are all these thousands of acres that the common man couldn’t set foot on, because it was private property.”
The new center is a place where visitors can experience a spiritual and emotional connection to the beauty of the lake and the mountains, before embarking on a trip down the trails. “Its basic form is meant for hitting visitors over the head to check their cellphones at the door,” Burke said.
Five galleries prep visitors for what they’re about to experience. The first is dedicated to orientation, and the second to conservation and stewardship. The main gallery uses visuals to emphasize the four seasons, a fourth is purely auditory and a fifth demonstrates the tactile nature of the site through bronze castings.
The 7,000-square-foot building is self-guiding. Closer in spirit to a chapel than a visitors center, the L-shaped, rectilinear order of the building curves to an apse-like form at its south end. Here, vertical wood slats with gaps between boards usher in narrow slits of light, a silent sermon on the spiritual power of nature.
The Carney solution not only earned Wyoming’s first LEED certification, but also was first to achieve platinum status for both the National Park Service and the state. The facility aced all 17 of the LEED energy points. It’s earned a 2009 Citation Award from the Wood Design & Building Awards in Canada, a 2008 Merit Award from the AIA Western Mountain Region Award and a 2008 Excellence Award from the AIA Wyoming Chapter.