The New Normal at a Campus of History

Robin Sarratt is Vice President of

This morning, I am not at my normal post at, doing normal things like grant writing —and lately construction management. Today I am filling in at the front reception desk, welcoming visitors to our newly expanded and improved Campus of History. They have come for a tour of President James Buchanan’s home, Wheatland, to see an exhibition in the Groff Gallery, or to conduct research in our library and archives. I am getting a chance to experience a normal day here from a different vantage point.

Normal is such a relative term, especially for an organization that serves a community that sometimes seems anything but typical. After all, Lancaster County is one of the oldest inland communities nationwide, with colonial settlement dating back to the 17th century and the municipal records beginning in 1709. We also have perhaps the largest community of Amish and Old Order Mennonite residents in the country. Nearly 20 percent of Lancastrians, about 100,000 people, belong to one of the “Plain” sects of Anabaptist religion. Buggies create traffic problems. The local Target has tie-up posts and watering stations for horses. Yet we also have one of the healthiest economies of any mid-sized city in Pennsylvania, largely driven by a vibrant arts scene. We have always been a bit abnormal compared to most of the east coast.

The routine for—Lancaster County’s Historical Society and President James Buchanan’s Wheatland—has changed dramatically in the last two years, in no small part because of the work we’ve done with Centerbrook Architects since 2006: first when we engaged them to help us craft a Master Plan, and second when we began work on designing and building what has become known as the Lancaster Campus of History.

When we met Centerbrook Partner Mark Simon and Associates Russell Learned and Peter Cornell, we were simply the Lancaster County Historical Society; we hadn’t yet merged with our next door neighbor, Wheatland, and we were operating out of a 1955 building designed to accommodate an organization that was a sleepy repository of county documents and artifacts. Since then, the Historical Society has become known as and has taken three separate history and heritage museums under our umbrella: we now operate a 16,000-volume research library with over a million manuscripts in our archives, a presidential site, the historic home of Thaddeus Stevens, and a 3,000-piece collection of decorative and fine arts, including a renowned collection of Amish quilts.

Our desire to build an addition to our facility, and to make our entire 10-acre campus more visitor-friendly through significant site changes, stemmed from a situation most museums would kill for—we had too many (can there be such a thing?) visitors. We spent the first decade of the century working hard to build a core audience, and with success came the challenge of where to park the cars and accommodate all the people. It became increasingly normal to go in search of extra chairs for lectures or to send a staff member outside to act as parking director when our once-ample parking spaces were filled well before a program was to begin.

It wasn’t a matter of “if we build it, they will come;” it was likely “if we don’t build it, we will lose them.” So we build we did.

Centerbrook designed a building for us that played loosely off both the industrial and agricultural history of Lancaster County. Three tall curved rooflines make way for great bays of north-facing windows, influenced by the array of silk mills in Lancaster with their saw-tooth silhouette and large clerestories that allow northern light to wash over the factory floors. Whitewashed pine boards reflect the agricultural architecture of local barn buildings. Warm stained-concrete floors and mahogany trim balance the neutral walls, well-suited to a variety of changing exhibitions and decorative arts objects. (Ironically, we managed to select a paint color before realizing Sherwin-Williams had named it “Lancaster White”!)

Our new Stauffer Wing includes a visitor welcome space at the heart of the building, complete with an orientation theater, Museum Store, café area, and all the needed visitor amenities. From there, people can venture into the new Groff Galleries to take in our exhibitions, Ryder Hall to participate in an educational program or class, or head toward our renovated library, made more open and accessible by the addition of a glass-walled Rare Book and Manuscript Room and by large archways between rooms that once housed “closed” library stacks. On our lower level, a new collections storage center makes—through the use of wide glass-lined corridors—our artifact collection visually accessible, while protecting our nearly 20,000 objects in temperature and humidity-controlled storage.

All told, we renovated an existing 14,000 square feet and added a 20,000-square-foot wing–we more than doubled the size of our facility and blended together the 10-acre site, which was not especially meshed together in such a way as to be easy to navigate. Nowadays, we have a seamless visitor experience, from the moment people arrive on the property and all the while they explore the grounds and buildings.

A key objective for us was to build a space that respected the natural environment by being as “green” as possible. As the organization tasked with safeguarding the legacy of a community that has evolved largely thanks to its extraordinarily fertile soil, we felt a moral imperative to protect that resource—our land— to the best of our abilities. Geothermal heating and cooling and photovoltaic collectors substantially reduce our carbon footprint (during the lifetime of our PV System, it will reduce our organizational carbon output by the equivalent of planting 20,794 trees!). In addition, a return to a pedestrian-friendly campus, along with the use of porous pavement, will help return rainwater to the water table—not into the Conestoga River in the form of runoff. We’re proud to be the first LEED-certified building in our municipality and the first LEED Gold non-profit in Lancaster County.

In my normal role working with grants and budgets, I’ve seen the impact the new Campus of History project has had on our bottom line—our visitation has more than doubled this year and our retail sales have skyrocketed. What has become evident to me again today, as I have greeted more than 60 guests so far, is just how normal it is for us to have scores of visitors come to the Lancaster Campus of History and find everything they were hoping to find, and more. And it is clear that the new normal includes having many of them walk through the door, look up and around at our beautiful new building, and say “wow.” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; it’s how I feel every time I come to work.