Reach for the Sky -- Small Town Tackles Humankind, Universe with Discovery Park of America

By Thomas Bailey, Jr. | The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), February 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Reach for the Sky -- Small Town Tackles Humankind, Universe with Discovery Park of America


Thomas Bailey, Jr., The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)


UNION CITY, Tenn. - The unusual shape of the big new building on the town's northern edge may suggest a dinosaur or perhaps a spaceship.

The reality is nearly as unbelievable.

Museums costing $100 million to build are not supposed to rise in little towns so far from population centers. Union City (pop. 11,000) is 115 miles north of Memphis and 170 miles west of Nashville.

To build Discovery Park of America, this rural community is spending the money of a retired businessman, tapping the brainpower of 250 citizens comprising 25 committees, and using the nation's and Memphis' leading museum architects, exhibit developers and landscape architects.

An October opening is planned for a museum-like complex that would befit Chicago's lakeshore or Central Park's border.

One theater will make visitors feel they're on the bridge of a spaceship, traveling the universe via a wrap-around screen showing real outerspace images.

Another theater will re-create the sights, sounds and shock of the severe New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, which formed the nearby Reelfoot Lake.

Other wow factors: A hologram of a storytelling Native American; a five-foot-diameter, 3D globe that shows everything from shifting continents to current weather systems; a 50-foot, stylized sculpture of a human body whose left leg doubles as a kids' slide; a 20,000-gallon aquarium visitors can walk into; airplanes suspended high in a vast atrium; $2 million-$3 million in newly acquired antique vehicles; dynamic floor tiles that create the illusion you're falling into the abyss; and the signature architectural piece a tower with a glass-enclosed observation deck 120 feet tall topped by a flagpole 200 feet high.

A big-city architecture firm designed the 100,000-square-foot Discovery Center to reach for the sky, just like the community that's building it.

What I got out of all the meetings was the aspirations of this community and the aspirations for the future, says Louis Sirianni, principal with Verner Johnson, a Boston firm that designs museums across the nation.

So I tried to illustrate this notion in the forms of the building ... They kind of sweep up.

Construction crews are gradually covering with silver aluminum panels the asymmetrical building, which seems to have few straight lines.

The shapes bulge, swoop, curve, sweep, glide and peak, all upward.

Some call the design futuristic; the architect prefers happy.

As you approach and drive by, I think it's an attraction in itself, Sirianni says. People will want to go there because it looks exciting. It's a welcoming and happy building.

One thing it's not is a museum, says Robert Kirkland, the 74- year-old retired businessman who's paying for it all.

The nearly lifelong Obion County resident made his money by growing and selling two big chain stores -- Kirklands Gift Stores and CBK Ltd. -- and having luck with his investments.

Instead of a museum, Kirkland describes a learning and teaching center that's so entertaining folks will be compelled to visit, to return, and to travel to reach it.

The entertainment starts with the striking architecture passersby see from U.S. 51.

Kirkland wanted it to look like something no one in that region had seen before, Sirianni says.

Townspeople may like Greek columns and red brick, but Kirkland feared even a beautiful stately building would not draw much attention.

He recalls his instructions to Sirianni, the project's second architect. I said I want this to be built so it offends half the people of Obion County ...

I had one lady call me up after the first architect made renderings, Kirkland says. I said, 'How do you like the building?' She said, 'It's the ugliest building I have ever seen.' "

So Kirkland called the same woman after she'd seen renderings of the second, final design. She said, 'Second ugliest building I have ever seen,'" Kirkland says, laughing. …

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