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Myriad Gardens opened 25 years ago in Oklahoma City

by Steve Lackmeyer Published: March 25, 2013

Master plan

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.”

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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AT A GLANCE

Editor's Note

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 section.

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, restrooms and upgrades to the performance stage.

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