The Parlors

Honor Award 2020

In order to preserve and respect the integrity of the historic Thomas Cole house, the design team carefully considered where to intervene with technology, seamlessly integrating the experiences into the architecture and furniture.

The team strove to enhance the visitor’s journey through multiple touchpoints throughout the house, and carefully considered even the smallest details including the ticketing experience. The tickets were designed to combine Cole’s words and works to produce a simple, elegant takeaway for visitors. Each ticket features a Cole painting detail and a quote to pique interest and spark conversation.

They leveraged the East Parlor, which Thomas Cole originally used as gallery, as the opportunity for a larger scale, immersive storytelling experience. Thomas Cole altered the dimensions of his landscapes to make you feel smaller. In response, the design team decided to go big and envelope visitors, giving them the opportunity to experience Cole’s work in a way that no one could before, filling visitors with awe.

This cinematic experience is cued by a docent during tours, empowering the guide to conduct the room. The array of canvases comes to life, awash in the rich colors of Cole’s paintings, as visitors listen to Cole sharing his innermost thoughts about his cherished Catskills, his beloved family, and the escalating price of progress through voiceover narration by acclaimed actor Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”).

His story is woven across seven canvases, with choreographed lighting cues drawing the visitors’ eyes to curated objects and design details within the space. The narrative concludes with a provocative question for visitors to contemplate as they leave the room.

The West Parlor, where Cole hosted visitors, presented an opportunity for the design team to embed technology in unexpected ways—allowing digital content to only be present and visible during key moments, enabling surprising moments of discovery for visitors. Through the use of presence detection sensors, as visitors wander around the parlor, they magically unlock stories that are projected onto Cole’s desk, dining table, and pier table.

Each story uses an actual conversation between Cole and a patron or friend to illuminate a key theme of the exhibition, ending with a provocative question for guests to contemplate and discuss. The visual presentation is comprised of portraits, animated handwriting, paintings, and sketches.

In the Sitting Room, the design team created an atmosphere of reflection and invited visitors to contribute to conversations that span from Thomas Cole’s time to present day. Seated in a comfy chair, visitors are encouraged to respond to prompts relating to Cole’s most passionate topics, including conservation.

The experiences at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site are inviting, approachable, and welcoming to visitors, removing the traditional notion of “look, don’t touch” that is often present in historic museum experiences. The thoughtful integration and blending of technology into the home’s architecture and furnishings encourages visitors to lean in, linger, and engage.

This new approach to a historic home museum experience has made history more approachable, extending Thomas Cole’s work and ideas to a new audience.

Jury Comments: 

“The opening image is so powerful that it almost stands alone in its ability to draw the viewer into a moment of wonder. The seamless integration of the projection onto walls transforms a traditional room into a portal to another world. The projections onto paper are quiet, keeping the artist’s craft in the frame. These elements transform the visitor’s relationship with the artist’s work, providing new ways of viewing, engaging, and understanding the work’s subjects and meaning.”

“The best integration of digital content I’ve seen in a long time. Truly transforms the space just enough that roots and subject matter are not lost. The delicate balance is exemplary.”

"This digital, spatial and content-based experience is completely balanced. Technologies are sensitively integrated into a historical space, which forms a captivating experience for the visitor using storytelling principles intelligently. The interaction of technology and the historical environment is outstanding, justified and meaningful."

Design Firm: 

Second Story, part of Publicis


Thomas Cole National Historic Site

Open Date: 

May 2017

Photo Credits: 

Second Story, part of Publicis

Design Team: 

Lauren Allcorn (creative lead), Don Davies (technology lead), Heather Daniel (production lead), Nora Bauman (content strategist), Matt Arnold (technologist, A/V engineer), Jeremy Rotszain (front-end developer), Vanessa Patchett (sound and video editor), Swanny Mouton (senior motion designer), Mimi Schuy (motion designer), Jinu Yang (senior art director)


Thomas Cole Historic Site


Hudson Valley A/V, Geoff Howell Studio

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