New visitor center opens at Mount Rainier
By JEFFREY P. MAYOR, The News Tribune
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. (AP) - Friday's opening of the new Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center completes a nearly $50 million, nine-year transformation of Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park.
"It's the final step of the renovation of Paradise. We've done the Guide House, built a new dorm, did the Paradise Inn and now the visitor center," said park superintendent Dave Uberuaga. "They're all going to complement each other really well and create a unified feeling at Paradise."
When the doors open, visitors will enter a much smaller building, but one that is more energy efficient and architecturally compatible with the alpine setting. Despite its size, however, the $22 million visitor center will be the educational and recreational focal point at the most-visited destination at Mount Rainier. In a typical year, 450,000 to 500,000 people come to Paradise to see the wildflowers, take a hike, join a guided snowshoe trek, go sledding or climb the mountain.
The impetus for constructing a new visitor center was driven by the inefficient, decaying saucer-shaped center just down the road. The boilers used to heat the building and run the system that melted the snow on the flat roof guzzled diesel fuel.
"It took up to 500 gallons a day on the worst days when it was really cold and lots of snow," Uberuaga said. "It was the poster child for energy consumption."
Park staff also knew the snow melt system leaked, but the system's pipes and 2,300 valves are covered with 8 inches of concrete, making access and repairs fiscally impractical. A 1996 engineering study determined fixing the old center would cost nearly as much as building a new one.
The new center, nearly three years under construction, will serve as model of energy efficiency. Some of the energy savings will come from heating an 18,000-square-foot building. The original center was 60,000 square feet.
The steep slant of the new center's roof allows the snow to slide off, eliminating the need for a snow-melt system. A double insulated roof wards off the cold. Double pane windows reduce the impact of UV rays and heat loss. The system cooling the auditorium uses cold water from the Paradise snowfield.
Park staff estimates the carbon footprint of the new building is 78 percent smaller than that of the 1966 building. The footprint is a measurement of the effect human activities have on the environment, said park spokeswoman Jennifer Mummart.
The energy efficiency translates into a significant savings for a park continually dealing with tight operation budgets. Fuel use is expected to drop 78 percent, and electricity use an estimated 67 percent, according to the project engineering firm, Fletcher Farr Ayotte PC.
At current rates, that is an annual savings of $143,353, Mummart said. Given the building's expected life span of 50 years, the savings could top $7.1 million.
In addition to a more sustainable building, park leadership wanted a design that better suited the surroundings at Paradise.
Eric Walkinshaw, project manager for the park, believes they have achieved the goal. "It's pretty grand when you walk in there, with the open space, with custom lighting in the ceiling," he said. "It just kind of catches your breath when you walk in there."
When visitors enter the new building, they will walk into a great room that soars 60 feet high. "It has floor to ceiling windows on both floors. It's great picture framing of the Tatoosh (Range) on the south and the mountain on the other side," Walkinshaw said.
What visitors won't have is the 360-degree view the original building's observation area offered. In the new building, visitors will not be able to look to the west, down the Nisqually River Valley.
The lack of a panaromic view bothers Ken Miller, of Olympia. "The mountain was out in full glory, as were the surrounding mountains seen with the 360-degree view from the top floor of the visitor center," he said of a recent visit to the 1966 building. "The huge windows provide a panoramic view that make you feel close and connected to the mountain you came to see, regardless of the weather outside."
Filling out the first floor are an information desk, gift shop, snack bar and restrooms. The second floor is dedicated to exhibits and the auditorium where a new movie about the park will be shown.
A large, outdoor plaza will give visitors a place to sit and admire the scenery and climbers a spot to gather their gear before attempting to climb the 14,411-foot mountain. Now, climbers often prepare next to their vehicle in the parking lot.
"There will be planting areas and signage about the types of plants you'd see in the meadow areas," Walkinshaw said. "For people who can't or don't want to hike the trails, it will give them a mini-meadow experience."
Uberuaga and his staff are looking for ways to improve the visitor experience at Paradise. One idea, likely to go in effect for the 2010 season, is to change how people drive into Paradise.
"Since the '60s, we've been coming in the back door. The original way to get to Paradise would be to go east on the Stevens Canyon Road and then come up the Paradise Valley Road," Uberuaga said.
"You would see the mountain, then the inn and then the visitor center. It was a true sense of arrival."
Regardless of how they get there, the park boss is anxious for people to see the new building, which sits where the Tatoosh Club once stood. He has heard from plenty of folks upset the old building will be taken down.
"In terms of sustainability it will work so much better," Uberuaga said of the new center.
"You look at the way its constructed, I think it will be an enduring piece of that landscape up there. Also, it doesn't take anything away from the mountain and the meadows, it kind of blends. It encourages everyone to be out on and with the mountain," Uberuaga said.
Schedule for the new Paradise Visitors Center
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.
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