For a frail, wheelchair-using Dean A. McGee, the ceremony set for March 25, 1988, was an appointment he had intended to keep for a quarter century.
McGee, who co-founded and led the city's largest energy company, Kerr-McGee, was a civic leader whose imprint on the city was wide and long-lasting. But he also was a man not known for grandstanding; he resisted tributes and was quite happy to let others take the stage.
And so it was that on the day that Myriad Gardens opened on this date (March 25), 25 years ago, that McGee's long-awaited dream came true while he let others take the stage. A year later, the longtime civic leader was dead — but the garden he planted was just starting to take root.
Grand vision in making
About 30 years earlier McGee joined up with other civic leaders — Ray Young, founder of TG&Y stores, E.K. Gaylord, publisher of The Oklahoman, and Stanley Draper, the longtime legendary president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber — and flew to Washington, D.C., to seek permission from one man more powerful than all of them to launch an Urban Renewal redevelopment of downtown Oklahoma City.
That man was Robert S. Kerr, co-founder of Kerr-McGee and revered as the “uncrowned king of the United States Senate.” With Kerr's blessing, McGee led the creation of the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority and the drafting of a new vision for downtown that included high-rise towers, housing, a shopping mall and a grand central park.
It was during an early conversation with architect I.M. Pei that McGee became enchanted with the idea of creating a park inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, opened in 1843 and widely considered the world's second-oldest amusement park and gardens.
Oklahoma City's urban renewal authority had yet to be officially approved when McGee, in 1962, hosted a trip to Copenhagen that included Gaylord, Draper, banker Harvey Everest, businessman Frank Hightower, and the city's new urban planning consultant Sam Zisman. The trip was the first hint given to the public of the grand vision still in the making.
“This is an enormously exciting program,” Zisman told The Oklahoman in August 1962. “It could open the eyes not only of our folks here but of people elsewhere. It might well be the start of an effective program of development for downtown Oklahoma City.”
As the leaders prepared for their tour, a national contest was announced asking landscape and architecture students to submit their ideas for an Oklahoma City garden spot downtown. A 29.4- acre patch of land on the south stretch of the proposed new park, was set aside for a demonstration of how the designs might be implemented.
At a presentation of the trip to Copenhagen, an excited audience of civic leaders from throughout the city were shown color slides of Tivoli Gardens — 23 restaurants, 80 other eating and amusement places, a concert hall, pantomime theater, dance halls, a children's playground, a lake, an outdoor entertainment plaza, bandstands for pop concerts and a concert hall.
Tivoli Gardens drew more than 4 million visitors a year. Zisman estimated a grand central park in Oklahoma City could draw 1.5 million visitors. Over the next couple of years the campaign continued to ensure Oklahoma City residents shared McGee's vision and excitement for a new central park.
Gov. Henry Bellmon greeted Tivoli Gardens Director Henning Soager and his wife as they arrived in Oklahoma City in April 1963 to judge design entries submitted by 499 students. The couple attended a series of balls and banquets, all heavily covered by television and newspapers.
The local Scandinavian Club dressed up in traditional garb and decorated the venues to resemble scenes from Denmark.
A year later, Pei was hired to master plan a makeover for all of downtown. His plan, detailed meticulously in a model and in drawings, called for a park between Robinson and Walker avenues, and Sheridan and Reno avenues.
At the heart of the park would be two botanical tubes built over a lake featuring gardens found in vastly different climates. The entire park would be ringed by a monorail, with shops and restaurants throughout the gardens.
The Biltmore Hotel, which stood on the northeast corner of the park, would be an anchor, as would the Oklahoma Club, which was renovated by its excited owners and renamed the Tivoli Inn.
Conklin and Rosant, New York architects, then were hired to design the gardens after being selected in a national competition.
Land acquisition and clearance started and dragged on for years. By the time the site was cleared in the 1970s, federal funding for such projects was drying up and the public's support for clearance of downtown — especially some of the more historic structures — was waning.
The site was completely cleared by the late 1970s — and ultimately the Tivoli Inn and Biltmore Hotel were reduced to rubble.
Ed Cook was hired as the first director of the new Myriad Gardens Foundation and was the initial fundraiser.
Initially, with the economy booming thanks to high oil prices, fundraising went well. In September 1981, 17 Oklahoma City businessmen pledged $5 million in personal or corporate funds toward the construction cost. Jack Hodges, of Hodges Truck Co., pledged $2 million during the fundraising drive, and plans were announced to rename the gardens the Hodges Botanical Gardens.
A year later the oil boom went bust. The pledges dried up. Lee Allan Smith, a civic booster with a track record of rallying public support, and more importantly donations, was tasked with making up the funding shortfall. Inspired by the metal structures used for highway signage, designs were revised that used similar steel structures, cutting costs and clearing the way for construction to resume.
The gardens, however, were far past the giddy early 1960s when the public was enthralled with the idea of their own Tivoli Gardens. Residents were struck with spiraling unemployment, bankruptcies, drastic cuts to city services, and a despondency over the city's future.
In the 1987 election, city funding for operation of the gardens became a major issue between businessman Ron Norick, who argued against the funding, and his opponent, Councilman Pete White, who saw the gardens as a key to pulling the city out of its doldrums.
Norick won. The funding necessary to open and operate the gardens was assured only after Councilwoman Jackie Carey made an emergency trip home from a vacation in Poland and teamed with White to vote on the budget.
Different from vision
The gardens that opened in 1988 were very different from the original vision.
The monorail was scrapped. Only one botanical tube was built. Shops and restaurants were no longer part of the plan, nor was there any further mention of making the gardens home to the International Photography Hall of Fame or a planetarium that ultimately became a part of the Omniplex next to the Oklahoma City Zoo.
“After the blood, sweat, tears and gnashing of teeth, it's here!” Norick declared as he shared ribbon-cutting honors with McGee. Jim Tolbert, a businessman who as foundation vice chairman assisted McGee in his effort to make the gardens a reality, reminded visitors the gardens was not an overnight success story, but rather, “a dream started 20 years ago, when we decided if we were going to have a real city, it had to have a center.”
AT A GLANCE
Monday marks the 25th anniversary of Myriad Gardens. Reporter Steve Lackmeyer, above, has been covering downtown development since 1996 for The Oklahoman. His column, OKC Central, appears Tuesdays in the Business
This story was compiled from research and interviews for his books “OKC Second Time Around” and “Operation Scissortail.”
Sources include Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority and Oklahoman archives, the private papers of Dean A. McGee and former Mayor George Shirk, Jim Tolbert, Lee Allan Smith, architect Jim Loftis and Elizabeth Milam, McGee's executive secretary for 44 years.
Project 180 transformed Gardens
Myriad Gardens underwent a $42 million transformation in 2011, much of it funded through a tax increment financing district created in conjunction with construction of the $750 million Devon Energy Center.
The improvements included reglazing of the Crystal Bridge, creation of a grand event lawn and band shell, a dog park, children's garden, seasonal ice rink and restaurant.
The gardens' water stage, underused since the park's opening in 1988, also underwent a makeover that included new seating, rest