I remember when the Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Conservatory were the new darlings of downtown. Granted, there wasn’t much else to see in downtown OKC when the now-iconic bridge and gardens opened in 1988. Along with many others who’ve called the metro home from childhood to parenthood, I’ve watched as downtown has flourished through economic development, revitalization and the MAPS programs, and the Myriad Gardens has continued to serve as a central force beckoning residents and visitors alike to the heart of our city.
The beautiful grounds of the Myriad Botanical Gardens underwent extensive renovations in 2011, creating the lush, welcoming, outdoor backdrop for annual events like Pumpkinville and the Children’s Garden Festival. But, like a lot of relics from the 1980s (this geriatric millennial mama included!), some serious TLC was in order for the Crystal Bridge Conservatory. After closing to the public in 2021 for a $9.7 million renovation, the 13,000 square foot glass tube will reopen as an icon reimagined this November.
New and improved
Visitors will immediately recognize improved accessibility, added educational experiences, updated spaces and varied views in the renamed Inasmuch Foundation Crystal Bridge Conservatory.
“I am most excited about how the new design is very visitor-focused and friendly in all ways,” said Maureen Heffernan, president and CEO of Myriad Gardens and Scissortail Park foundations. “That’s the biggest thing we wanted to get right, so we tried to design everything from a visitor viewpoint. I think we have achieved that.”
The enhanced visitor experience begins at the entrance’s newly-added outdoor plaza, where plants and seating encourage visitors to take a moment to appreciate the beauty of nature. From there, guests enter the renovated lobby, complete with a new admissions desk, gift shop, coffee bar and classroom.
Guests will be drawn in to the conservatory through a wider entrance, leading to widened pathways throughout, as well as non-slip blue stone flooring and smooth walking surfaces to ease accessibility. The addition of a second elevator on the north end and new stairways will help with the flow of visitor traffic and allow guests to meander through the space at their own pace.
Seating has been added on all three levels to provide quiet spots to rest or enjoy the views.
Heffernan notes that the conservatory’s former waterfall could be noisy and overwhelming. Both more visually dramatic and soothing to the senses, a new waterfall sets the stage as visitors enter the redesigned space. The addition of a reflecting pool adds to the sense of serenity.
Of note for gardeners, conservationists and lifelong learners, the plant life inside the two conservatory zones — still delineated into a tropical wet zone and a tropical dry zone — has been more intentionally placed with visitor education in mind. More interpretive signage and exhibits will appeal to visitors of all ages.
“It really showcases the plants even more,” said Heffernan of the redesign. “Instead of coming in to a mass of plants, they are more distinguishable from each other. They are grouped in fruits, spices and commodity plants.”
Art features have been incorporated throughout the space to enhance and highlight the natural beauty of the trees
and plants. A new terrace on the northern section of the second level can be rented for weddings or events.
Old favorites refreshed
What will longtime residents like me, who visited the Crystal Bridge Conservatory both as a kid and then again with kids of my own, recognize in the new space? Not much, laughs Heffernan!
The popular skywalk on the third level remains intact, but even this landmark didn’t escape needed updates.
“Before, we had railings up the sides where kids couldn’t really see out,” said Heffernan. “We have created three bump-outs along the way so kids can see out through sturdy, clear material. Also at those bump-outs there are sensory interaction stations, which adds an enriching educational aspect for kids.”
All the plants were removed from the conservatory during renovation, and while the space still feels lush, the plant canopy will be noticeably lower as the young trees take time to grow. But Heffernan says that change will allow even greater appreciation for the 224 foot long, 70 foot diameter bridge, covered in 3,028 sections of translucent, double-layered acrylic panels.
“Having a lower canopy is cool because the architecture of the bridge suddenly reveals itself,” said Heffernan. “You can see how lovely the architecture is, which you didn’t see as strongly when the plants were so big. It’s a real architecture icon for the city from the exterior, but now you see the inside as well.”
Beyond the foliage
Outside of the conservatory itself, reimagined spaces will serve to enhance the visitor experience. A Discovery Room has been added between the elevator and second floor entrance. In this space, children and families can enjoy illustrative graphics and text about how plants and insects work together as well as themed activities that will rotate monthly.
The Oculus Room, with the large, circular windows looking toward the Devon Tower, has transformed from a cave-like space to an airy art gallery with exhibits that will change every quarter. A bright, cheerful classroom at the north end of the bridge will host classes and programs for all ages.
The new museum-quality gift shop, designed by architect Charles Sparks out of Chicago, will feature custom display cases offering locally-made goods by Oklahoma artisans, branded Myriad Gardens shirts and mugs and garden-related books and houseplants, plus a coffee bar selling hot and cold drinks. Visitors will not have to pay admission to visit the gift shop or coffee bar.
Updated admission prices
Admission to the Inasmuch Foundation Crystal Bridge Conservatory will increase to $12 for adults; $10 for seniors, military and veterans; $8 for students and $7 for youth (ages 5-17). Discounts are offered for groups of 10 or more. Family memberships are $85, which include free annual admission to the Inasmuch Foundation Crystal Bridge Conservatory, free admission to Pumpkinville in the fall and the Children’s Garden Festival in the summer and a discount on tickets to the Devon Ice Rink throughout the holiday season. Plus, members receive free admission to a plethora of botanical gardens around
“As a nonprofit, we have to raise a lot of money every year,” said Heffernan. “Buying tickets or becoming members helps us grow our income so we can keep doing great things.”
Enjoying the outdoor gardens remains a favorite no-cost OKC experience for residents and visitors alike.
“Our exterior gardens are free, and that’s very rare,” said Heffernan. “Most are gated with an admission fee, so the fact that anyone can walk there, bring their family and not have to worry about paying to experience a beautiful garden is a real plus for OKC and for visitors.”
A future so bright
After the successful completion of major renovations to both the outdoor gardens and the conservatory, Heffernan and her team are now focused on creating even more opportunities for families and individuals to connect with nature in meaningful ways. They hope to achieve that vision by adding more annual events and maintaining the grounds and conservatory as a top-notch botanical garden.
“In the Children’s Garden, we would like to look at how we can elevate that,” said Heffernan. “We have had so many families and kids enjoying that space for over a decade. We’d like to look at that area to see how we can make it even better and replace some things that have aged out.”
In Heffernan’s 11 years with the Myriad Gardens, she and her team have launched popular annual festivals like Pumpkinville; added diverse programming like Dancing in the Gardens, a plant sale and concerts; overseen the opening of Park House and the design of the great lawn space and band shell north of the conservatory and revitalized the popular Full Moon bike rides, attracting thousands of repeat visitors throughout the seasons.
Plus, the Myriad Gardens’ November tree program, through which the team gives away up to 1,000 trees to residents, is making a lifelong impact in greening the city and educating residents on the importance of conservation through tree planting, pollinators and native plants.
“Having beautiful gardens and green spaces — 15 acres in the middle of downtown to relax, walk, take a break or have a place where you can come with your kids — that is priceless in terms of adding to people’s quality of life,” said Heffernan. “I like to think we’ve had a role in encouraging people to come downtown more, adding more vitality and momentum to how downtown has changed in many ways over the past decade.”
Join the celebration!
Opening weekend for the new Inasmuch Foundation Crystal Bridge Conservatory is Nov. 18-20. Enjoy special hours Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Each day will include educational programming and activities. Find more details at myriadgardens.org.