Missouri Botanical Garden Set to Open New $100 Million Visitor Center | Arts and theater
Missouri Botanical Garden President Peter Wyse Jackson says he’s heard the word over and over again from donors and employees at previews this week for the new $100 million Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center .
“People weren’t just saying it,” Wyse Jackson said. “It was the whole sense of place. Their garden has been improved and strengthened, because it fits so well into the landscape of the garden.
The garden, at 4344 Shaw Boulevard, will host the center’s grand opening ceremony for the public at 10 a.m. Saturday with free admission Saturday and Sunday, courtesy of the Pohlmann Legacy. Instead of a traditional ribbon cut with giant scissors, Wyse Jackson will cut a garland of fresh greenery with garden shears.
There will be live music, storytelling and other special events, as well as refreshments from local vendors. The new Sassafras restaurant and cafe will be open.
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The center has been funded by more than 12,000 individuals, foundations and donors, with a primary donation from the Taylor family.
Visitors can see for themselves if it has that wow factor. They will look up and notice the over 50-foot-tall glass “lantern” in the center above the main hall. It is designed with perforated aluminum screens that cast shadows mimicking the canopy of a ginkgo tree.
They’ll look down and see the terrazzo floor, which is inlaid with smoothed river stone as well as hundreds of brass outlines of leaves from native Missouri trees: bitter walnut, papaya, black walnut, hackberry.
The buzzword here is “biophilic design”, an approach that seeks to connect buildings and their occupants to nature.
Connecting people to nature was a real challenge in the former visitor center, which received the wrecking ball in February 2020. The Ridgway Center, built in 1982, was expected to welcome 250,000 visitors a year. These days, the garden receives more than a million. Getting people through the doors and up the stairs or elevator to the garden was a confusing, often bottlenecking undertaking, with some wanderers asking, “Where’s the garden?”
To enter the new center, visitors first climb exterior steps or a ramp, passing through beds of trees, plants and flowers to be planted in the spring. So the garden experience starts from the parking lot, planners say. When people enter the building and look through the hall and through the rear glass doors, it is obvious that the larger garden awaits them.
The doors to the visitor center line up with a giant ginkgo tree in the garden that dates back to the time of founder Henry Shaw. The doors to the adjacent event space, which served as a temporary ticketing center and gift shop, line up with the doors to the brick Linnean House. The axis extends to Tower Grove House at the rear of the garden.
Project manager Joel Fidler along with Baltimore-based architect Ayers Saint Gross worked with St. Louis-based Tao and Lee Associates on the design. Michael Vergason is the landscape architect and Alberici is managing the construction.
“Obviously the garden is so loved in St. Louis,” Fidler said. “And even broader than that, passing people around and saying things, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize the Climatron was so close’ or, ‘The Linnean House looks so different’, you you really feel like you’re having a significant impact on how people view the garden.
Peter Tao grew up in St. Louis. His parents, William and Anne Tao, were Chinese immigrants who were instrumental in starting the Chinese cultural festival now held in the gardens. He was happy to incorporate the history of the garden into the design.
One of the main focuses was the renovated Sassafras restaurant and cafe, which features white acrylic ceiling lights that look like oversized roses. A carved wooden bench and common top were created from a Shumard oak that was dying and had to be felled for construction. Transparent panels tell culinary stories about seeds, grapes and other edible crops.
“That’s neat,” Tao said. “Each has a story, and a lot of it is either about what you might find locally or something the garden is looking for.” A panel, on seed diversity, sponsored by his company in honor of his parents.
- A revamped and larger Garden Gate gift shop, which includes an outdoor space to sell plants and flowers, tan leather sofas for discerning readers and expectant spouses, and a “Koi Cafe” with vending machines full of fish food for kids eager to tote even more eager giant koi in japanese garden lake. The garden has just opened an online store for home navigation.
- A conservatory which will host a permanent exhibition of Mediterranean plants and will be the new venue for floral exhibitions, such as the holiday train show and the orchid show this winter. This is the first veranda built in the garden since 1915.
- Meeting and classroom space on the main level with offices in the basement for education, events and interpretation staff, and space for volunteers. Their offices include indoor and outdoor bike racks and a shower and locker area.
- An ever-changing video wall in the lobby, as well as ticketing and visitor service counters. Round glass fixtures above the counters mimic stars or lightning.
- More outdoor seating and a revamped menu at Sassafras Restaurant and Cafe. It includes express salads and sandwiches, sit-down dishes like Belgian waffles and egg and chorizo wraps, an Italian option called “The Hill Hoagie”, a Climatron salad with mangoes and macadamia nuts, a sticky butter and wine by the bottle.
- A theater that plays an intro video narrated by another local specimen, actor Jon Hamm. “I think we tell a pretty good story about ourselves, but it kind of had to be found,” said Liz Fathman, the garden’s director of marketing and communications. “I think what we really wanted was to get off to a straight start. We orient you to the garden, help you understand its mission a little bit, so that when you go out, when you read some of these signs, there’s a connection that you finally make.
The garden is seeking LEED certification for its efforts, which include two 25,000-gallon cisterns to collect rainwater to extinguish its flora and solar panels still installed on the roof. Crews encountered supply chain issues due to the pandemic but were able to manage them, said Deniz Piskin, vice president of facilities and construction for the garden.
In September, work begins to convert the temporary visitor center to the east into the Bayer Event Center, which can accommodate weddings for 350 people. This space should open in the spring.
The garden horticulture team will begin planting the new gardens outside the building to the north and south. Workers will add more than 30,500 plants, including rare and endangered species that tell more about the garden’s research around the world.
Wyse Jackson knows that the center will be an example for gardens around the world and hopes that it will become the destination for major international conferences and meetings.
“We are so happy,” he said, adding that the results of years of planning have exceeded his expectations. “It really improves and opens a new era for the Missouri Botanical Garden.”