Hidden Among The Habitat

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park is a little-known gem of a Florida state park that opened in 1989, located on a barrier island nestled between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Its 438 acres are immersed in the flora and fauna of what would be described as “old Florida.” The MacArthur website (www.macarthurbeach.org) states, “It preserves the natural heritage of subtropical coastal habitat that once covered southeast Florida.” The park contains upland, coastal, and maritime habitats. This is an ideal natural environment for teaching and passing along an appreciation for nature to generations to come.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection offers opportunities for local residents to become very involved in making decisions about how each local park is managed, what events and services are offered, and how the Citizen Service Organization (CSO) is allowed to fundraise and pay for park improvements. At MacArthur Beach, the citizen volunteer board members, known as The Friends of MacArthur Beach, are an active group that is given great latitude by the park’s management in guiding the programs, education opportunities, and the facilities’ expansion and improvements.

Too Intrusive

By 2006, the park’s popularity had grown, and the indoor educational teaching spaces, research spaces, and gift shop had outgrown the original building. The Friends contacted me to work with them on sketching out some possible expansion ideas. These were to include a large, open classroom space that could also be used for various gatherings and rented out for public meetings and private events (weddings, parties), a staff lab for conducting experiments, a library containing many reference books about nature used by the staff and others, display areas to show exhibits about the local flora and fauna, and a much larger gift shop that could also serve as the kayak gear and rental center.

The first plan sketch created a small addition that would have completed the fourth “pod” of the original architect’s design for the complex (Drawing 1). But that location was denied by the park service because of the native vegetation that would have to be removed. The second concept came from the architect of the park service. That design would have created two separate buildings, one for educational needs and one for the visitor’s center/gift shop. That expansion would have been built onto the northern side of the existing building complex (Drawing 2).  However, even that scheme was dismissed by the higher-ups because of the native vegetation and trees that would have to be removed.

Just Right

After some additional sketch options, the plan was to develop a single building that would consume the least amount of existing vegetation and would spare all significant, native trees. The building would be divided into two sections—one for the visitor’s center/gift shop and one for the educational classroom and research lab. Concept sketches for that building and footprint were approved by the park service, and the design of the addition moved forward (Drawing 3).

The program for the building was to add the following:

  • A large classroom with a “wet lab” for grade-school children to get their hands wet in learning about the local environment. The classroom space would also serve as a large room for events and public meetings.
  • A covered porch to allow children to conduct experiments outdoors.
  • A lab room for conducting experiments by staff and college interns.
  • A library for staff research.
  • An office for the manager of educational programs.
  • Storage for the many tables and chairs to be used in the large classroom at certain times.
  • An informational gallery for exhibits explaining the local flora and fauna.
  • A large visitor’s center/gift shop to house souvenirs and outer wear for sale, snorkeling and kayak gear equipment rental space, and the gift-center manager’s office.

Material Matters

The original park’s buildings were constructed of a wood frame, siding, and roof shingles. The buildings are elevated 5 feet above grade onto wood pilings driven into the ground to keep the buildings above the anticipated flood elevation (the buildings are only about 30 feet from the surrounding waterways). The all-wood original buildings require continuous maintenance. For the new addition, I wanted a building that would blend in with the existing buildings but would be constructed from timeless and “bullet proof” materials, such as concrete and other maintenance-free materials. The south Florida region is known for its termites and hurricanes.

I placed the addition just in front of the existing complex so it would only be connected by the new covered breezeway. That allowed the existing buildings to remain untouched and for the new building to be a self-contained entity. The placement of the new building minimized the disturbance of the existing native vegetation and trees. I positioned the new entry ramp to allow a gumbo limbo tree to remain in its native location at the foot of the ramp.  Parts of the building’s shape and ramp path were manipulated to allow other native strangler fig trees to be untouched and unharmed.

It is my design philosophy that a building should reflect the climate in which it resides. I did not think that the original buildings, which look like tall sails projecting high above the tree tops, was a good design solution for a region that experiences tropical storms and hurricanes. In the new building’s design, I wanted to use a regional architectural style that incorporates wrap-around porches to help shade the walls from the sun, to protect visitors from sudden rainstorms, and to provide a cool, breezy respite to sit, relax, and take in the natural surroundings. The “siding” on the new building is actually stucco that has been applied in horizontal strips, using a standard stucco bead trim in order to mimic the wood siding on the original buildings. Detailed corner trim is also of stucco and reflects the original building’s trim. The stucco will require almost no maintenance. The wood decking, deck structure, and perimeter columns are of pressure-treated wood so the new building does subliminally relate to the original buildings. The materials on the interior were selected for their durability, ease of maintenance, and economy.

Perfectly Purposeful

Since the new building opened in 2011, the education programs for local primary-school children have expanded beyond any initial hopes and expectations. The Pew Family contributed substantially to the funding of the new building, and it continues to help fund the educational programs teaching young minds about the nature that is in their own backyards. The buildings are located less than a ½ mile from an urban area, but once inside the park the connection to civilization is forgotten. More than 5,000 students from all of the local schools, along with their teachers, are exposed each year to the local natural beauty and ecosystems, all because the new building provides the foundation that the Friends and Park’s management and teaching team envisioned.

David Porter AIA is an architect licensed in 11 states. He has been in practice since 1981.  He works mostly on small- to medium-sized commercial and recreational projects as well as small to large residential projects.  He can be reached at David Porter Assoc.- Architects, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. www.porterarchitects.com   dporter@porterarchitects.com