Thomas Architecture Studios at Olympia awarded for thoughtful design of new visitor facility to be built at Brewery Park


Bn 1962 as a child, Ron Thomas, president of Thomas Architecture Studios (TAS), would play close to just open Olympia Tumwater Foundation visitor center at Tumwater Falls. He had no idea then that one day he would design a new replacement facility for the more than a quarter of a million annual visitors who stop at this Deschutes River site, now called Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls.

The current wooden building at the Brewery Park in Tumwater Falls is 60 years old, has limited uses and needs to be replaced. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

Not only has that day arrived, but the American Institute of Architects of Southwest Washington (AIA) recently awarded Thomas and his company a Citation Award for Unbuilt Projects for the plan for the new visitor center. The structure will be named the Brewery Park History and Nature Center, in recognition of its various intended uses for education, events and visitors.

“The jury was particularly impressed with the inclusive spirit of the Olympia Tumwater Foundation’s new visitor center and commended the site’s thoughtful organization and nod to the regional vernacular,” said Matt Melcher, associate professor and head of the architecture program at the university. Washington State University School of Design and Construction in his remarks during the Introducing the AIA Online Awards.

“The site plan skillfully blends an existing bike path with pedestrian and vehicular access, creating attractive pathways, gathering spaces and multiple access points that effectively invite visitors from all directions to explore the project,” adds Melcher. “The traditional longhouse provides a suitable source of inspiration, as the Visitor Center will serve as a place for community gathering, storytelling and a platform to celebrate diverse and interconnected histories.”

Current Brewery Park Visitor Center outside
An award-winning design replaces this building with a new multi-purpose visitor center. Construction will begin in late 2023 or early 2024 on the current building footprint at Upper Tumwater Falls. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

Thomas says the design of his business took into account the history of the falls, which served as a tribal gathering place, an industrial milling and brewing center, a salmon run and a community park maintained by the private foundation in non-profit. “Everything flows from the river,” he says. “It binds him throughout the centuries: culture, environment and society.

Thomas notes that the current 60-year-old reception center is “tired”. “That’s long for a wood-frame building,” he says. Groundbreaking for the new facility is scheduled for late 2023 or early 2024. The project is expected to last one year.

Many factors entered into planning discussions, such as the history of the riverfront, intended future uses, and tax considerations. “What do we want it to be, in the future?” he says.

The idea to replace the current facility began with the recognition of the Leopold Schmidt family who founded the old Olympia Brewery and the foundation. As the discussions deepened, it became clear that a larger building design could offer more and reflect the multiple past and present uses of the falls. “The building is about the site,” says Thomas. A larger design could tell the longer story of the Squaxin Island tribe and other Native Americans who treasured the river, as well as the story of early pioneers and the beginnings of industrialization, while providing space multifunctional that the community and visitors will appreciate now and in the future. And that’s the award-winning plan that TAS has written.

Tumwater Falls with arch bridge overhead
The planned new Brewery Park Visitor Center in Tumwater Falls will have multiple uses for the community and visitors to experience and enjoy the historic Deschutes River site. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

Thomas says working with tribal representatives has also given his company an opportunity to talk about tribal science studying water flow. Additionally, the planned gable roof for the center with large overhangs and cedar shingles has its genesis with a Native American longhouse design (as The Longhouse and Educational and Cultural Center of Evergreen State College) while reflecting the appearance of an old mill.

TAS Associate Director and Project Manager Tom Rieger agrees that as the center’s goals have evolved, so too has the plan, including maximizing other improvements underway at the park, such as refurbishing nine of the trails. “The pathways are laid out to wrap around both sides of the building,” he says. “There will be bicycle parking, and we will move the maintenance building.” He says vehicle parking improvements are also in the design.

The two sections of the new 4,800 square foot building will include a museum and event space on one side and a faucet room, restrooms and offices on the other. Visitors crossing the breezeway connecting the two sides will hear the roar of falling water.

Associate Director of Thomas Architecture Studios Tom Reiger (left) and Chairman Ron Thomas (right) stand in front of the new design presentation of the Brewery Park Visitor Center
Associate Director of Thomas Architecture Studios Tom Rieger (left) and Chairman Ron Thomas (right) stand in front of the new Brewery Park Visitor Center design presentation given to Tumwater Town Council. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

Like today, the park will have no entrance fee, however, as part of the fiscally responsible part of the design, there will be a fee for renting the new building’s event space. It is planned that the new building will also be able to use the energy generated by the falls, as well as solar panels.

As author Norman Maclean wrote, “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” The new Tumwater Falls Visitor Center will embrace this idea, helping the community and visitors better understand and appreciate the Deschutes River as it flows through the history and future of Thurston County.

For more details on the design of the project, see the presentation of the foundation during a February 22 Tumwater Town Council Business Session.

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