You don’t go to the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden to see buildings.

Still, the site’s new Welcome Center is something to behold. The $10.5 million structure is understated, yet impressive in its own right, blending in seamlessly with the springtime profusion of flowering buds, carefully tended gardens and canopy of trees.

It’s the starting point for an immersion into 460 acres of woodlands and gardens in Oakdale on land that was restored after decades of intensive damage from coal mining.

“Creating a sustainable future from its industrial past, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is a shining example of how to restore land from a hazardous landscape to a thriving garden and woodland area,” says project architect Robert Shemwell of Overland Partners.

Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Welcome Center. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

Based in San Antonio, Texas, Overland designed the Welcome Center with local firm FortyEighty Architecture. Opening on April 1, it will be the focal point for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s expanded public programming for all ages, particularly school field trips. Activities range from land reclamation workshops, horticultural lectures and planting demonstrations to private events (even weddings).

Floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the space bring the forest in close, and the Canopy Cafe terrace faces outward into the woods.

Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

“You look right into the woods — you don’t see wires or cell towers or anything like that,” says Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Executive Director Keith Kaiser. “It’s very quiet. You hear the birds and you can hear some deer walking down in the woods. It’s a beautiful place to feel and experience being outdoors while having lunch.”

The cafe will focus on lunch but will be open for dinner some evenings — the gardens are open until 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Offerings will include sandwiches, salads, coffee and freshly brewed iced tea.

A newly expanded gift shop called Forage and Find is also part of the Welcome Center. Then there is what they refer to as the Auto Garden — which sounds better than calling it a parking lot — designed by Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc. and Pashek + MTR. The Auto Garden increases the site’s parking capacity while housing a 177,000-gallon stormwater retention system underneath to collect rainwater from seven acres of the property.

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden was one of the initial recipients of funding from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), which promotes the reclamation of previously unusable surface and deep mining land with acid mine drainage that pollutes local waterways. Since 2005, the organization’s staff and volunteers have planted 10,000 saplings and constructed three passive filter systems to clean up acid mine drainage. The system now cleans 25 million gallons before it reaches the area’s watershed.

Kaiser says the timing for the opening coincides nicely with the garden’s biggest natural feature of color — when the native dogwoods start to bloom around the second or third week of April until around the second week of May.

“It’s a really great time to get up into the garden,” Kaiser says. “And I’m talking about like 300 dogwood trees that feel like a white cloud has landed on our property.”