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For a small but historically significant city in upstate New York, the NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center was commissioned to celebrate the Auburn and Finger Lakes region’s pivotal role in the civil rights, women’s suffragette and LGBTQ movements. As the hometown of Harriet Tubman, William Seward, and other figures central to the struggle for equal rights, the city is well positioned to tell a wider story. The Center creates meaningful connections between past and present, educating and guiding visitors virtually and physically through its historic and social contexts.

Four angled brick volumes hinge open to frame views of the surrounding landscape and historic sites beyond, through the lens of the exhibition inside. The permanent exhibition co-designed by nARCHITECTS brings to life the causes and individuals connected to this history through songs, speeches, games, portraits, political posters, animated maps and video timelines.

We also conceived the center as Auburn’s living room – a flexible interior and exterior space for programs that will evolve with the community’s needs. The building and new public plaza hosts numerous community programs, including a farmers market, concerts, talks and meetings. The inherent flexibility of the interior and plaza spaces offers users a welcoming, comprehensive and approachable experience. The result is not only a trailhead to historic sites, but also a portal for community interactions.

The building’s luminous interior is characterized by natural and durable materials including board-formed concrete and an exposed timber-framed roof.

A reduced palette of materials include a rose-colored brick, chosen to relate to the houses on historic South Street. The building’s use of concrete as both structure and interior finish helped to achieve an ambitious schedule: 18 months from concept to completion.

Client: City of Auburn, NY and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Location: Auburn, NY
Status: Completed
Dates: 2017-2018
Sq Footage: 7,500SF
Program: Cultural heritage center with Equal Rights exhibition + Cayuga County and local tourism exhibition, Taste NY market, and offices. Scope included design of new public plaza and streetscape.
Environmental: Geothermal Heating & Cooling

Design Team: Eric Bunge, Mimi Hoang | Amanda Morgan, Thomas Heltzel | Wei Wen, David Mora, Albert Figueras

Collaborators: Client: City of Auburn, NY State Parks | Exhibition Design: MTWTF and nARCHITECTS | Structure: Silman | MEP: OLA Consulting Engineers | Civil/Landscape: EDR | Lighting: Lumen Architecture | Graphics: MTWTF | Traffic: GTS Consulting | Surveying: PJO

Photography: James Ewing