The Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Study Building by Alden B. Dow

The Nature Observatory (Nature Study Building)

The inspiration to establish a place for the study of the natural environment in the Midland area first came to the members of the Midland Nature Club in 1963. Their search for a building and sanctuary site led them in 1965 to property at the confluence of the Pine and Chippewa Rivers owned by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. The Foundation approved the lease of the 198-acre parcel of land for a proposed nature center, and its president at that time, Alden B. Dow, expressed the desire to prepare a design for its first building.

When the architect presented the initial drawings to club members in February 1966, they were pleasantly surprised, having only asked for a basic screened-in structure for summer use. As plans for the use of the building were developed and the nature center was incorporated as a non-profit organization, the Dow Foundation announced it would pay for the building and excavation of a pond. On November 14th of that year, Branson Builders of Midland was awarded the contract for the construction of what was then named the Nature Observatory for $42,289.

The first cement blocks for the building’s foundation were laid on November 22nd. Alden and Vada Dow gave the first major private donation of $6,600 shortly thereafter. The building fits naturally into its wooded surroundings. A low pyramidal roof sits atop outward sloping walls that support the roof via cantilevers. The walls are made of vertical grain fir that is pierced with narrow vertical bands of diamond-shaped openings that permit observers to view wildlife from the inside without being seen. There are no central support columns on the inside. Mr. Dow would later modify this design for the Dow Gardens Conservatory in 1975, replacing the pierced wood walls with slanted glass to more completely blend nature and architecture.

The interior of the Nature Observatory consisted of a large classroom, seats, cabinets, laboratory sinks, bulletin boards, and a projector screen; although the bulletin boards were on the inside walls, they were designed with hinges to open inwardly. The official dedication of the building was held on October 15, 1967. It served as the center of educational activities for the next seven years until the construction of the Interpretive Building. In 1988, the name of the building was changed from the Nature Observatory to the Nature Study Building.

Special thanks to Dennis Pilaske, Executive Director of the Chippewa Nature Center, for the construction photographs.

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