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Hideaway Woods takes shape at Durham's Museum of Life and Science

Posted February 3, 2015

There's a big mess at the Museum of Life and Science, but this time kids in a science lab aren't behind it. Major construction work continues as crews build a new addition to the Durham museum.

Gone is the popular Loblolly Park, along with the aging wooden playground that kids have scrambled around for two decades. Added are the beginnings of eight new treehouses, a filtered stream and a tunnel under the museum's kiddie train tracks, which will serve as the entry and exit point for Hideaway Woods, a two-acre exhibit that opens this summer.

"What we're going to give back is a whole lot more spectacular," said Julie Rigby, the museum's vice president for external relations.

Hideaway Woods is part of a $3.9 million plan to add two major outdoor exhibits to the museum; a guest park to replace Loblolly Park; and classroom space for camps, field trips and other gatherings. Work on the park, where Loblolly Park once stood, is moving forward. The 2,000-square-foot classroom is under construction across Murray Avenue from the museum's main campus. And Earth Moves, another outdoor exhibit that will focus on earth sciences and construction, will open in 2017.

I toured the Hideaway Woods construction site with Rigby late last week as professional treehouse builders, who also are arborists, worked to construct bases and supports for the eight structures. The treehouses will rise five- to 18-feet off the ground and are supported by loblolly pines and sweetgum trees. The exhibit sits in a formerly undeveloped area of the museum's 84-acre campus that is surrounded by the train tracks. 

Once complete, visitors will be able to climb up ladders into three or four of the treehouses. All eight will be connected by bridges and rope tunnels. In some cases, kids can get to the ground by zooming down a slide. The result will be a kind of village of treehouses that Rigby compared to either the Swiss Family Robinson or the Ewok villages in "Return of the Jedi." 

While the treehouses will be a focal point for Hideaway Woods, they won't be the only draw.

Running through the center of the exhibit is a filtered stream with treated water, which kids can dam up, wade through, splash in and explore. At the top of the stream, there is access for kids in wheelchairs to reach the water. A new restroom building will include spaces for cleaning up and changing clothes. 

And then there will be the 2,500-square-foot art installation made out of twigs that kids can run through and hide in. Patrick Dougherty, a noted North Carolina artist who has created similar structures around the world including at the N.C. Zoo, will be using nine truck loads of one-inch red maple saplings to building the piece starting this month. 

For toddlers to preschoolers who are too young for the treehouses, the exhibit will include Explorers Crossing, a collection of huts that will sit off the ground. (Rigby said museum leaders expect the treehouses will be popular with kids between the ages of 4 to 5 and 8 to 10).

Hideaway Woods also will include some trails and other opportunities for visitors to explore nature and collect natural items to build their own twig huts, to dam up the stream or to just play.

"We want to get kids outside, playing in nature," Rigby said.

The short tunnel to enter Hideaway Woods through the train track embankment sits right next to the space once home to Loblolly Park. The museum plans to turn that space into a visitor park called Gateway Park with a place for snacking, meeting and resting. Kids will be able to play in a 900-square-foot sand play area and navigate a large rope climbing piece. Gateway Park will open when Hideaway Woods opens this summer.

So far, Rigby said the museum has raised about $2.6 million toward the $3.9 million price tag for the entire plan. The money comes from donations. No Durham County bond money will be used for the projects. 

That budget also includes money for Earth Moves, which will take shape in a meadow near the museum's Catch the Wind exhibit in 2017. Earth Moves will include a freestanding waterfall and full-size, but stationary excavators., among other features. Kids will actually be able to operate the diggers on the trucks, Rigby said.

Pending weather and other construction delays, Hideaway Woods could open to the public in July. It will come about three years after the museum opened the popular Into the Mist exhibit with its mist dome, mogul field and rain tree.

Rigby said members and museum goers had been asking for upgrades to the Loblolly Park and more opportunities for outdoor play.

"Parents want to let their kids play outside, but where and how," Rigby said. "We can engineer things for it to be as safe as it's going to be." 

If you've been planning a visit to the Durham museum, don't let construction keep you from visiting the museum. All of the museum's indoor exhibits, the butterfly house, dinosaur trail, farmyard, Into the Mist, Catch the Wind and Explore the Wild, with bears, lemurs and red wolves, remain open.

The museum, right now, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. It's closed on Mondays through March 9.

Stay tuned to Go Ask Mom for more updates about the progress.


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  • Celia Benton Sep 26, 2015
    user avatar

    It's finished now. Check out this review:

  • Stacie Hagwood Feb 5, 2015
    user avatar

    What a COOL idea!

  • 68_dodge_polara Feb 4, 2015

    This is a great museum, if you can afford it. It's worth it for residents to buy yearly admission for their children but if you enjoy taking out of town guests you're gonna get soaked.