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  • Ettienne LeFebre

New Holland Island: A Sensory Interpretation of Collective Memory

This post is part of a series of case studies investigating innovation in historic site interpretation. The case studies explore new technologies, advanced approaches to storytelling, community engagement, and multi-sensory experiential learning. Research and writing for the series was completed by Ettienne LeFebre during her 2023 summer internship with Groundwork, with contributions and oversight by Gretchen Hilyard Boyce.

New Holland Island is a man-made island in St. Petersburg, Russia that was created by Tsar Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century. The use of the island evolved over the centuries from a naval base, to the location of lumber warehouses, a technological testing site, and the country’s first rehabilitative prison. The St. Petersburg government prohibited public access to the island, which led to an air of mystery surrounding the activities at the site. In the twentieth century, government agencies and businesses largely abandoned projects on the island, which led to a period in time in which New Holland Island was left to natural forces. This abandonment, in conjunction with the island’s already mysterious reputation, propelled it to become a place of ruin and the unknown in the collective memory of St. Petersburg as it increasingly fell into disrepair.

In 2011, St. Petersburg city officials selected a master plan by New York based architecture company WORKac and consulting preservationist Jorge Otero-Pailos to rehabilitate and transform the island into a cultural and social center for St. Petersburg. WORKac’s plan considered the entire built and natural landscape of the island, and emphasized not only the historical features of the site but the mysterious and “otherness” of it in the collective memory of St. Petersburg. As a result, they planned to craft a unique multi-sensory interpretive experience based on public perception of New Holland Island’s history.

WORKac, Overview of New Holland Island Masterplan, 2014.

In order to preserve the island’s mystery while creating safe spaces for public access, the WORKac team relied on the concept of “the void,” which accentuated the “absence” of St. Petersburg’s citizens and history from New Holland Island. The two multi-sensory strategies utilized by the project planners were visual and olfactory. One visual strategy used was to disregard the traditional preservationist focus on the facades of structures. They planned to remove the walls and ceilings on some of the warehouses in order to highlight the lofts of the buildings, which were technical innovations when they were built. The idea was to reframe the fabric of the island to be complex and textured, and serve to invite people into another world. The subtraction of space would invite visitors to the island and inside of the spaces without physically entering them.

WORKac, Rendering of redesigned New Holland Island Warehouse, 2014.

The incorporation of nature into the plans for the island also exhibited a departure from the typical ideas behind restoration projects. Since the island became primarily ruins during the twentieth century, WORKac architects designed New Holland Island’s landscapes to allow for natural decay processes to continue to take over the built features, actively perpetuating the historic romanticization of the island as a ruin. In addition, the plan recommended planting trees and vegetation into the newly created open spaces in some of the buildings to accentuate the historic power nature has had on the island.

WORKac, Rendering of the interior of a redesigned New Holland Island Warehouse, 2014.

The olfactory experience of the island was taken into careful consideration in the master plan, and Otero-Paillos designed a scentscape that utilized the historic scents of the island. For example, timber was traditionally stored and dried in the warehouses in the bays of the island. To recreate the historic scents of the ship bays Otero-Paillos studied the types of wood and the process of its drying. He aimed for the smells of the island to starkly contrast with the scents of the surrounding city, which would accentuate the “otherness” of the space and reinforce the concept of the void. Otero-Paillos’s olfactory techniques were designed to convey a distinct sense of place on New Holland Island, as it would reinforce the site as a space related to shipbuilding and the sea. The scentscape offers a chance for visitors to absorb the history of the site in an immersive manner that does not require an interpretive sign, guide, or even their full attention.

Overall the New Holland Island Master Plan by WORKac represented several innovative techniques in historic site interpretation. Rather than relying on historic building tours and plaques, the plan seeked to transform New Holland Island into a multi-sensory experience that reinforced the distinct otherness of island. The visual aspects of subtraction from spaces to emulate the void, and the olfactory experience of smelling the historic process of wood drying, are both examples of how the New Holland Island’s Master Plan would have opened up an entirely new historic space to the city to both use and appreciate for its historicity. The plan was abandoned by St. Petersburg in 2013 to employ a more traditional method of building preservation and focus on transforming the island into a modern park-like space. However, the WORKac’s Master Plan is rich with innovative concepts that could be adopted in other restoration projects in the future.

About the Author

Ettienne LeFebre is currently completing her Master’s degree in Public History at Sacramento State University, with a focus in historic preservation and cultural resources management. Her research centers around the diversification of historic resources, increasing public interest and engagement at historic sites, and the preservation of intangible heritage. She specializes in California and Southwestern U.S. history, and aims to preserve historic resources related to the complex and diverse histories of these regions for the benefit of contemporary communities. In her free time she enjoys hiking along the American River, reading, creative writing, and exploring Sacramento’s incredible food scene.


“New Holland Cultural Urbanization.” New Holland Cultural Organization. Accessed July 10, 2023.

Andraos, Amale. “New Holland Island: Strategies of the Void.” Perspecta 48 (2015): 202-209,

Malone-France, Katherine. “Preservation Art: An Interview with Jorge Otero-Pailos.” Forum Journal 30, no. 3 (Spring 2016): 7-18.

“New Holland Island Masterplan.” WORKac. Accessed July 10, 2023.


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