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.
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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