Coming Home To The Cows

Situated on what is today the far western edge of the sea of suburbia that developed outside Chicago is the 48,410-square-foot Stephen D. Persinger Recreation Center in Geneva, Ill., which opened in late 2008 on a former farm site. Geneva is now marked by buzzing arterial roads, swathes of residential subdivisions and the ubiquitous commercial developments of late-20th-century expansion.

The idea of retaining some of the area’s rural heritage seemed a logical one to the project’s design team, Williams Architects, located in Carol Stream, Ill. The concept also was appealing to the Geneva Park District, which promotes the historical, agricultural character of the former farm on a 370-acre portion of the site that the district owns.

The vision for the new community center--which was to house two basketball courts, two volleyball courts, a running track, a fitness center, locker rooms, dance/aerobics space and multi-purpose rooms--was to communicate a barn theme celebrating the area’s rural tradition. The design also would complement its setting on land of the old Peck Farm, dating from the mid-19th century, and which served as a place to raise sheep to supply nearby mill operations.

Stepping Into The Theme

Once there was a common vision among team members and client, it was applied to the plans for both the exterior and interior of the center.

“We asked the park district to step into this theme with us,” explains Williams Interiors Director Doreen Redman, who acknowledges the design was a risk. “We were either going to sink or swim in the initial presentation--there was no middle ground.”

Later--after the team secured the project--the saying, “When the cows come home,” was appropriated to stimulate creative thinking with a suitable sense of playfulness.

Structural Symbolism

Early in the planning, a structural solution was settled on: a steel-frame building that not only was cost-effective, but provided an excellent medium to express the barn vernacular, recalls Tom LaLonde, the principal in charge of the project’s design for the firm, which specializes in recreation facility architecture. The product selected--from VP Buildings in Memphis, Tenn.--would not only offer durability, but also lend itself to achieving a desired aesthetic.

“The profile of the metal panels bears a resemblance to the board-and-batten treatment customarily seen on old barns,” LaLonde explains. He relates that the metal application in the standing-seam roof and in the “vee-” and panel-rib wall systems were available in red, gray and white hues that would also help convey the pastoral mood of the project.

The design team applied the concept to other architectural details. A communicating staircase, for example, is concealed by an actual grain silo, while barn ventilators on the roof ventilate the clerestory windows of the gym--in a manner similar to that of a real barn. The barn vernacular continues in sliding barn doors and wood trim.

Inviting Inspiration

Redman indicates that the inspiration for the design was hatched through the creation of a “collage of ideas” book, an assembly of images collected to spark the creative process by forming “a foundation from which to build on.”

Among the first items found in opening a magazine pictured “this wonderful, wild, who-would-ever-use-that, cow carpet.” But, she recalls thinking, “That’s exactly what we need!” The design progression, says Redman, “keyed off that.”

“Mascot” cow toys were subsequently brought to an owner meeting to keep the theme forefront. As many team-client meetings were scheduled during lunch, one meal was organized as an old-fashioned picnic, with “Black Cows” (a colloquialism for root-beer floats) served for dessert.

“We wanted to ‘live the theme’ we were asking the owner to endorse,” says Redman, who credits the park district for allowing the design team to push the creative envelope. “The client let us take the reins, respecting our approach all the way through the interior-design process.” The recycled barn siding was sourced locally for the recreation center’s main lobby space. Inexpensive fiberglass roofing panels formed the textural, translucent wall dividing the lobby and the children’s play area and added a rustic touch by revealing the supporting structure within.

Large-scale photos of barnyard “vignettes,” complete with close-ups of barnyard creatures, placed in children’s spaces, and a play apparatus consisting of a miniature barn with a hay bale also reflected the farm sentiment.

At once informative and transformative, the new recreation center contains visual references to the past that belong to the current setting. Reflecting on the ambitious application of the barn theme to the facility project’s design solution, Redman concludes, “We wanted people to get the feeling that they’d stepped out of suburbia and into another place.”

Barbara Dutton writes about recreation architecture projects for Williams Architects Ltd. For more information about the firm, visit Dutton is a communications professional with 15 years of experience in marketing communications for professional service firms, she holds a B.A. in Journalism from Northern Illinois University, and she has studied Historic Preservation at Northwestern University.

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Finding A Theme

Public-recreation agencies that are considering building a facility with a theme might look to their immediate locale to spark ideas.

For example, in a “salute” to the community’s naval air-station heritage, the Park Center in Glenview, Ill., contains a natatorium featuring replicas of fighter planes, as well as a water slide-staircase designed to look like a flight-control tower.

The Splash Station water park in nearby Joliet, Ill., contains buildings that imitate railroad structures--such as a train station and a roundhouse--inspired by the park’s proximity to a rail line that served a gravel plant associated with the area’s quarry history.

“Park and recreation agencies looking to build a facility that projects a theme might work with their design team to identify a local feature--whether natural, historical or other--from which to draw inspiration,” suggested the late Michael Williams, AIA, who, as the founder of Williams Architects, had worked with clients to establish a theme to drive a project’s design.