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Potawot health facility designed like a traditional village

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ARCATA, Calif. ? The recently opened Potawot Health Village is not your typical modern health facility.

Rather, the $18 million facility serving tribes along the Northern California coast mimics a thousand-year-old Yurok style village. At the same time it incorporates cutting-edge architecture and design.

Potawot, which is the Wiyot name for the Mad River, sits near that river's mouth at the junction of U.S.101 and state route 299, an old gathering center for the region's tribes. Bob Weisenbach, lead architect for MulvannyG2, the Bellevue, Washington-based designers, says he set out to create a place that would bring about a spiritual feeling.

"We wanted to create a place that had the feelings and emotions; the history art forms and dances of the north coast Indians and translate that into architecture that would bring about an emotional and spiritual response," says Weisenbach.

David Haworth works in corporate communications for MulvannyG2. He says United Indian Health Services, Inc. ? a non-profit corporation that provides medical services to tribes along the north coast ? approached his company after they had seen the architectural work MulvanyG2 had done on a medical facility for the Puyallup tribe.

The architectural firm hired Dale Ann Frye Sherman, who has ties to several north coast tribes, to be their cultural consultant on the project. Weisenbach and Haworth credit Sherman with keeping their focus on the spiritual needs of the community.

"It must be a place where we remember the old medicine and use it with the new medicine," Sherman said. "The designers were culturally sensitive and listened to our cultural needs ? the proof that they truly heard is in the design of the Health Village."

After conducting a search the architectural firm settled on a reconstructed traditional Yurok village that sits at Patric's Point State Park. However, since the main original material used was old-growth redwood, a rare commodity these days, the design for Potawot called for some innovative, non-traditional materials.

Concrete "tilt-up" walls simulated redwood through an acid-etch stain technique, done by contract work with a local artist. Weisenbach said some tribal elders were "amazed" when they were told the buildings were not actually redwood.

In the main entry area, known as the "Gathering Room", however, real redwood is used for support columns. The wood was salvaged from century-old abandoned logging mills and other buildings in the area. Weisenbach and Haworth say this use of recycled wood is in line with American Indian ecological principles.

Additionally they say the acoustics in the building are excellent and provide for opportunities for a multi-use facility. A walkway area called the "path of the elders" is used for weekend art exhibitions.

The 44,000 square foot facility took two years to build. It sits on 40 acres and contains a natural area known as the wellness garden and 20 acres of restored seasonal wetlands. Jerome Simon, CEO of United Indian Health Services, Inc. said the goal of the facility is not to just provide basic medical care, but promote a larger sense of health.

"Good health goes beyond that of the individual. It must include the health of the entire community including its culture, language, arts, traditions and environment."

Potawot serves more than 13,000 American Indians along the north coast where the principle tribes are the Yurok, Hoopa, Tolowa, Wiyot and Mattole. The facility will also provide service to all other American Indians who live in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.