On a hot June day in 1778, General George Washington’s army ambushed troops led by British General Sir Henry Clinton in the fields and forests of what is now Monmouth Battlefield State Park. It was the longest battle of the American Revolution. The battle is famous in part for folk hero Molly Pitcher, who carried water for cooling the cannons, thus earning her nickname, and supposedly took her husband’s place as a cannon gunner when he collapsed during the battle. “It’s 500 acres of hallowed ground in American history. This was a pivotal battle in winning the Revolutionary War,” says Joe Tattoni, a principal at Ikon.5 Architects, which renovated the park’s visitor center.
The original visitor center, erected to commemorate the park’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration, resembled a brick box. For the renovation, there were a few requirements: stay within the original footprint on the historic and archaeological site; preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the location; and focus on sustainability—all within the tight budget.
Ikon.5’s solution creates a modern, light-filled, steel and glass monument to history with floor-to-ceiling windows allowing expansive views of the rural landscape. “The challenge was to reinvigorate the building and also educate people about the importance of this battle in the revolution,” Tattoni says. “Very little exists from Revolutionary times and most of the items are kind of dry. The key artifact is the battlefield itself and the stunning views from the top of the hill. We wanted the visitor center to exploit that view.”
While the building is the first thing visitors see as they approach from the parking lot, the one-story structure strikes a purposely low profile. “We built low and horizontal, so although the building is modern, it hugs the hilltop and doesn’t overpower the landscape,” Tattoni says. In sections where large windows were not feasible, such as the 150-seat auditorium, classrooms, offices, and archaeological lab, Ikon.5 clad the exterior walls in cedar siding painted with old-fashioned milk paint to achieve a weathered, barn-style look that blends with the rustic setting.
In the building’s orientation theater, the introductory film ends by rolling up the screen to reveal a large glass window overlooking the battlefield. Historical re-enactments frequently happen there, with visiting groups in Revolutionary regalia recreating specific battle scenes. “When you are inside the building,” Tattoni says, “it feels like a stage set to where the battle took place.”