Can modern cabins entice new audiences into state parks?

by Patrick Sisson

New prototypes at New York State Parks offer contemporary design while respecting the past
In an effort to attract new audiences to explore nature, the New York State Parks Department has invested in man-made design.

As part of a new effort to modernize cabins and make the park visit more accessible and accommodating, the department funded a series of new cabin prototypes that will be open for visitors later this year. At sites at both Wildwood and Heckscher state parks on Long Island, these new dwellings will offer a contemporary update for overnight visitors, boasting sleek forms, natural materials, and open, light-filled interiors.

“It costs the same for good design as for bad design, so why not have good design?” says Angelyn Chandler, the deputy commissioner for capital programs of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, who helped spearhead the program. “It’s incumbent upon us to spend the public money in the best way possible. To me, that’s using good design and good architects to give our visitors the best experience.”

Chandler previously spent a dozen years working for the New York City parks department, which has its own design programs. When new funding offered the opportunity to incorporate better design into state park property, Chandler seized the chance to hire an architect to make a statement, and ideally create a prototype that could be utilized for parks across New York.

Chandler turned to architect Claire Weisz and New York-based firm where she’s a principal, WXY. Previously recruited by the parks department to reimagine and redesign shower and toilet facilities for the park system, Weisz loved the idea of designing public accommodations that could stand up to the weather and wear-and-tear of repeated use, attract a new generation of visitors, and adapt to modern needs.

So far, the project will consist of 10 cabins in the woods of Wildwood, 670 to 784 square feet one- or two-bedroom structures with cedar shingles and reclaimed mahogany trim set to finish early this year, as well as 15 beachfront contemporary cabins for Heckscher, located on Long Island’s south shore, set to open later in 2018.

For Weisz, the project challenged her and her firm to create something sustainable and easily constructed on ecologically sensitive parkland, while being both progressive and representative of the history of existing public cabins. Existing structures had been built during the Depression-era WPA programs of the ‘30s, at a time when park rangers and administrators created and popularized a style, heavy on natural materials, now known as “parkitecture.”

WXY’s prototypes could be called a modern, lightweight adaptation of the concept. Cabins at Wildwood feature more open, wider floor plans, to better suit large families and meet modern ADA requirements, as well as light-filled interiors, larger windows, and unfinished natural wood surfaces, a reaction to older structures’s often dark and cramped layout. Durable, solid furniture, and a lack of ornamentation, speak to longevity and easy maintenance.

At Heckscher, the waterfront cabins melded a variety of modern influences, such as Hamptons contemporary cottages and The Sea Ranch, while keeping the same focus on natural materials, such as stone and wood. They should reflect and respect the past, without offering up a pastiche, says Chandler.

The buildings also needed to be easy-to-assemble, since models likely will be constructed by park rangers, as well as literally “above the landscape,” since in some ecologically sensitive places, adding foundations isn’t possible. Like adding new flora and fauna to an ecosystem, the cabins need to be “conscious of other things that have happened in the park,” says Chandler.

As the prototypes go into service this year, Chandler and WXY will take feedback from guests and park staff and tweak future designs. Ideally, the structures will be replicated and used throughout the state, establishing a design program for the park service, akin to a similar initiative in California. Weisz says the structures were designed so they could eventually be prefabricated, offering utility and ease of installation, allowing them to be set up anywhere intrepid campers may want to explore.

“Visitors have come to the same parks and cabins for decades,” says Chandler. “Hopefully these projects will bring new people to the parks who will start their own traditions.”

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