Afternoon in Paris

Linda Burton posting from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – “No, we have a house,” was the deadpan answer. The young Dad held his little boy mid-air over the stroller while the Mom re-arranged jackets and diaper bag. She laughed, and I did too, amending my question from “Do you live here?” to “Do you come here often?” The Mom affirmed that they were frequent visitors to this beautiful park. The mood was light and why wouldn’t it be – we’re in a magical place where a fairy-tale lake disappears beneath a curving crystal tube that’s filled with jungle orchids; outside it’s Paris. Indeed, parts of this 17-acre oasis were inspired by the Tuileries Gardens of Paris, where Parisians celebrated, met, promenaded, and relaxed. Which is what I’m doing this afternoon in downtown Oklahoma City. If I were designing a place for people to gather in the heart of the city I’d do it just like the Oklahoma City planners did. I’d start with I M Pei. And I’d wind up with something like the Myriad Botanical Gardens.

I’m strolling in the revised new version of the Gardens today; in 2011 the grounds underwent major changes. Spacious entry plazas and a Children’s Garden were added; along with a grand event lawn and pavilion, a dog park, and many awe-inspiring water features. Of course, I don’t know what it looked like before; it all began as part of a downtown revitalization plan way back in the 60’s. That’s when I M Pei was hired to create a public space attracting visitors from around the globe. It wound up taking nearly 20 years to get to opening day.

In 1970 the Myriad Botanical Gardens was officially named, and the Myriad Gardens Trust was founded to oversee the Gardens’ growth. Work on the 17-acre outdoor grounds began in 1977, and in 1981 civic leaders formed the Myriad Gardens Foundation to raise private funds to build the center point of the Gardens, the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory.

A Crystal Bridge! Opened in 1988, it is an architectural icon for the city today; an amazing structure comprised of 17 steel trusses and over 3,000 clear acrylic panels. It houses the Tropical Conservatory where over 1,000 plants are supported in three ecological tropic zones – lush rainforest, an island environment, and even desert savanna. You can travel the world on a single ticket; rainforest plants originate from South and Central America, central Africa, southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Island plants come from the Caribbean and the Mascarenes in the Indian Ocean; plants in the dry tropics zone thrive in Africa, Madagascar, Mexico and Australia.

You make your way through the Conservatory on stone paths by rushing waterfalls; or take the canopy walk high above the trees; watch for the Floss Silk Tree, Rose Cactus, a Double Yellow-headed Amazon Parrot. Markers point out interesting plants or plant features. I stopped to rest on a wooden bench on a wooden bridge; orchids draped from planters just above my head in the warm moist air. From the tropics back outside to that Parisian atmosphere; there may not be much natural water in Oklahoma, but the Gardens are filled with it.

The lake covers two acres and is fed by the existing water table 22 feet below street level; not connected to the Bricktown Canal or the Oklahoma River. It has several varieties of fish including goldfish and Japanese Koi. On the lake next to the Crystal Bridge is the Water Stage, with seats for over 500 people. It’s available for concerts, theatrical productions, and even weddings – what a setting to get married in! It was too chilly today for the Children’s Fountain on the Water Stage Plaza, but it mimics an Oklahoma thunderstorm. Sound, light and mist give a warning before rainfall comes down from above; then, get wet. There’s a wave fountain too (which I didn’t see today); ocean waves are pushed from one end of the fountain to another.

There’s more water in Meinders Garden and Meadow; an Ozark river waterfall channels water through the Gardens, surrounded by native grasses and foliage. In the Children’s Garden there are water elements tucked in among the hedge maze and the story tree. Dotting the grounds amid the lake and gardens are several large sculptures.

The Grand Event Lawn takes up a grand space in the shadow of the 50-story Devon Building; as many as 2,500 people can gather to have family picnics or a massive community event and there’s a bandshell for concerts or other performances. The 17 acres of gently rolling hills has plenty of trees too; hundreds of native and non-native species are planted throughout the grounds. The Groves, a sycamore tree-lined path along the west side of the Gardens, is the area that was inspired by the Tuileries Gardens of Paris.

Am I really in wind-swept Oklahoma? As I approach my car I see the young couple putting baby and stroller into theirs. The Mom waved. “We’re going to our house now,” said the Dad, still deadpan.

Crystal Bridge Myriad Botanical Gardens at Reno and Robinson