Dean A. McGee had the vision, and Ray Ackerman had the words. Together, almost 50 years ago, they tried to entrance the city with a vision of a new downtown.
Their view of a 21st century downtown Oklahoma City included new hotels, upscale housing, plenty of shopping and at the heart of it, a lush Myriad Gardens.
“Sounds greet you as you approach this vast sea of greenery,” Ackerman wrote in a 1964 promotional brochure ordered up by McGee. “Sounds of birds, children, people … a blending of moods. … The gardens are an oasis in the bustle of the heart of downtown … a restful zone in the midst of business and commerce. You stroll along the landscaped paths, pausing to shop in a colorful art gallery, or for a snack at one of the patio restaurants dotting the park.”
McGee used a wheelchair when the gardens opened in 1988 after a lot of false starts. He died soon after the opening, while Ackerman, one of the city's leading advertising men, would live on to put his words behind the launching of yet another downtown vision — the original 1993 Metropolitan Area Projects.
The gardens was a success in that it, combined with the annual Festival of the Arts, continued to draw crowds downtown when the 1960s vision by McGee and other city fathers fell short.
But as recently as a few years ago, as downtown enjoyed an unprecedented revival, the Myriad Gardens dream remained elusive. The Crystal Bridge Botanical Gardens drew tourists and visitors, but the park was pretty desolate when it wasn't hosting the annual spring arts festival.
An ambitious and painful makeover was ordered up as part of the Project 180 reconstruction of downtown streets and parks launched in 2009.
Last week, on the second anniversary of the reopening of the gardens, I strolled through the park and enjoyed lunch at the newly opened Ice House.
The outdoor tables were filled with downtown workers, visitors and families. Parents walked the paths with babies in strollers. Kids partook in crafts, a hay bale maze, pumpkin decorating and cider pressing in the children's garden. Those brave enough gathered for ghost stories (part of the annual Pumpkinville being staged daily through Oct. 31).
Each day reveals a different group enjoying a park once dismissed as too closed off to the public. Early morning yoga classes, free outdoor concerts and movies are among the regular draws bringing people to the grand lawn.
I am among those who rarely visited the gardens before the Project 180 makeover. I now visit with my kids at least three or four times a month.
The legacy, however, still belongs to McGee. Project 180 accomplished what the community couldn't in the depths of the 1980s oil bust. That the gardens even got built was still a huge boost for downtown. The groundwork laid by McGee and fellow city fathers in the 1960s enabled today's leaders — Larry Nichols, Jim Tolbert, James Pickel and others — to create the vision being enjoyed today.