Along the banks of the Rivanna River in Darden Towe Park, the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center’s new 2,500-square-foot home is taking shape.

Its modern design, balanced by a fluid connection with the surrounding landscape, is forming a building that exemplifies the center’s vision of creating “a green educational center … that will foster a love of nature and exploration.”

“We see ourselves becoming a river center,” said Alexandria Searls, executive director.

Construction began in 2011, and while the new facility’s late spring 2013 opening date is still unknown, the final product will be quite an improvement over the wooden barn that has served as the center’s headquarters since 2002.

Much of the funding for the $1.75 million project came from a Virginia Department of Transportation Enhancement Program grant that awarded the group $800,000 over four years.

The nonprofit also received $250,000 from the Charles Fund and $100,000 from the Perry Foundation, for both capital and operational purposes.

The new center sits on 17 acres of riverfront land that the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County leased to the center for 40 years. Upon completion, it will be a multi-use facility that will include a green roof, exhibition and activity space, an outdoor classroom and a pedestrian ferry across the river.

“Our programs will be greatly improved,” Searls said. “For one, we’ll have running water, electricity and bathrooms. We also won’t depend on the weather. Activities will be able to take place rain or shine, in wind or heat or cold.”

Currently, the center’s programming is suspended due to construction, but when the new facility is completed, the staff plans to resume their community activities, which include art and science programs for schoolchildren, hiking and kayaking trips and opportunities for scouting projects.

They have even built a full-sized replica of one of the keel boats Meriwether Lewis and William Clark used during the 1804 Corps of Discovery.

Searls says she is excited about the center’s upcoming activities.

“We want to be a first aid center and a place where people can call for water levels,” Searls said.

Illustration courtesy of Hays + Ewing Design Studio

She also has ideas to establish the center as a destination site for paddling trips.

“We can go from [the Lewis and Clark center] to Peter Jefferson’s Mill to Monticello, where people can hike up to the house,” Searls said. “There’s also the Monacan burial mound that Thomas Jefferson excavated nearby.”

“We’re also thinking about hosting an annual Lewis and Clark Adventure Challenge, each year focusing on a different exploration skill,” Searls said.

But it is not only outdoor enthusiasts whom the center hopes to attract to the Rivanna.

“The new Lewis & Clark center has the potential to be a tourist amenity for our area, especially with the people who come here for Monticello,” said Charlottesville’s director of economic development, Chris Engel.

The center, which will house a café and large patio, will highlight local foods and agritourism, as well as host some weddings and events, and be a place where other nonprofits can meet.

As the city and county update their respective comprehensive plans, local officials have said joint planning along the Rivanna River will get greater attention. To that end, the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture will participate in a week-long design workshop in mid-January to offer its land-use ideas.

Searls said she hopes the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center will be involved in the workshop.

“I think a lot of people have realized that there’s a river that goes through Charlottesville,” Engel said. “In a lot of ways it’s a new frontier for a lot of activities.”

“It’s probably too early to tell specifically,” Engel added, “but I do see some long-term potential to do things along the river. Whether that’s residential or office or recreation, it’s hard to say.”

The center is in its final fundraising push to pay for the new building. More information is available at