By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on November 21, 2014

In a major new expansion, Fernbank Museum of Natural History will be opening up its doors to embrace the 75 acres of woods in its backyard for visitors to enjoy a unique outdoor experience.

Fernbank, which opened in October 1992, has launched a $20 million campaign to expand and re-orient the museum so that visitors can fully experience 10 acres of mature woodlands and the 65-acre Fernbank Forest, the largest old-growth urban Piedmont forest in the country.

It will be the largest single investment in the museum since it opened 22 years ago.

Bird's eye view of the campus
Bird’s eye view of the campus (Renderings provided by Fernbank)
Bird’s eye view of the campus (Renderings provided by Fernbank)

In many ways, it will bring Fernbank full circle to the original vision of Emily Harrison, who saw Fernbank as a “School in the Woods” more than a century ago.

“Fernbank is the only nature museum in the country connected to a major woodlands and an old growth forest,” said Susan Neugent, president and CEO of Fernbank Museum. “This is the most significant development at Fernbank since the museum opened, and we can’t wait for our visitors to experience this fun and invigorating encounter with nature.”

Although Neugent said it was premature to talk about the status of the $20 million campaign, she did say that there has been 100 percent participation from Fernbank’s board of trustees.

Classroom in the woods
Classroom in the woods

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation also has made a $5 million grant towards the $20 million campaign. Separate from the campaign, the Woodruff Foundation has made another $5 million gift as an endowment to support the ongoing maintenance of Fernbank Forest.

Speaking of the Woodruff Foundation trustees, Neugent said: “Their generosity to Fernbank goes far back. They’ve been anxious to see us embrace the outdoors.”

The expansion will enable the museum to fully take advantage of its unique location as an urban natural history museum within a forest by letting visitors experience nature in an outdoor environment rather than inside a museum building.

Adventure outpost for young explorers
Adventure outpost for young explorers

The outdoor expansion will offer experiences for all ages enabling visitors to explore a variety of landscapes along with a five-story change in elevation—from dramatic vantage points high in the trees to footpaths winding through rugged, ever-changing terrain.

Experiences will include tree pods, play areas, ground trails, sensory stations, elevated adventure nets, hands-on water cycle activities, a restored wetland, and “floating” walkways.

“This is a rare opportunity to connect our visitors with a truly authentic nature experience, right here inside the city,” Neugent said. “We can’t wait for our visitors to experience this fun and invigorating encounter with nature.”

The new outdoor experiences will be located primarily on the 10 acres of mature woodlands in Fernbank’s backyard, and the expanded outdoor experiences area is expected to open in the summer of 2016.

The Fernbank Creek run
The Fernbank Creek run

When the Fernbank Museum was built 22 years ago, it was located on land that used to be residences along Ponce de Leon Avenue and Clifton Road. The woodlands — which do include a number of 100-year-old trees — are basically the former backyards of those former homes, and they are adjacent to Fernbank Forest. But the land cannot be considered to have been undisturbed like the old-growth forest.

Neugent said that Fernbank went through great pains to make sure the old-growth forest would not be impacted by the expansion or during construction.

The museum actually is doing the opposite by restoring the forest, stabilizing the trails and helping with pond restoration.

The forest wet meadow
The forest wet meadow

It is currently leading a research-based restoration that includes removal of more than 45 harmful invasive species and restoration of many native species that have largely disappeared.

“We understand at the time Emily Harrison had her home here, there were 21 different species of ferns in the forest. and today there are only nine species,” Neugent said. “So it’s our plan to return the full composite of ferns along the northern bank of Fernbank Creek.”

It was because of all the ferns along the bank of the creek that led Emily Harrison to name the forest and her homestead — Fernbank. She founded the organization — Fernbank Inc. — in 1939 to preserve the forest.

Fernbank is one of the oldest conservation nonprofit institutions in the country following American Forest, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

Tree pod experience
Tree pod experience

Asked about whether trees in the woodlands and Fernbank Forest would be saved, Neugent said that they had conducted a thorough tree inventory. A total of 479 trees were counted of which six were declared too sick or in poor condition. Six that had been planted recently along a roundabout will be removed. That will leave only six trees that will need to be cut down for the expansion.

“We have taken great pains to place the walkways between trees,” Neugent said. “We have made a great effort to preserve as many trees as possible.”

Part of the $20 million Fernbank campaign will include expanded access to the forest, and Neugent said that is expected to occur when the outdoor experiences will be unveiled to the public. Fernbank’s outdoor expansion will be included with the admission to the museum at no extra charge, and it will be free for members.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

Join the Conversation


  1. The Museum does not yet have permission from the county for its “proposed” expansion. It will be kept to the requirements of historic Druid Hills, just like the other property owners here, we will make sure of it. This proposal does nothing but funnel money and attention away from their TRUE and original purpose, the CARE AND UPKEEP OF FERNBANK FOREST. It is STILL closed to the public, years later, proving that the current CEO, COO, and board have corrupted the mission of its founder, Emily Harrison. A shame for our neighborhood, for science, and education in this city.

  2. Emily Stewart Harrison was able to see the opening of Fernbank Science Center. She mentioned that this was her dream becoming a reality after waiting for so long; she was for progressive education, and she always a wanted a “school in the woods.” She would have never imagined that future Forest trustees would disconnect from the science center and lock the Forest gates. The “open Fernbank Forest” petition that has been circulating has several of Ms. Harrison’s descendants signatures.

  3. Susanne Pesterfield we think that goes back to 1939 when the original Fernbank Inc. was formed, so not sure what would be online from that time. It would seem that DeKalb County would have to have some records available, but we have no idea how one would get them. Perhaps Fernbank would be willing to share?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.