By late next year, drivers crossing the Missouri River from Iowa to Omaha on I-80 will see a new shape on the hillside: a gleaming glass building inspired by a tropical flower in bloom.
Lauritzen Gardens will soon break ground on a $20 million, 20,000-square-foot conservatory that will house tropical and temperate gardens and feature a gallery for floral displays and special events. The popular South Omaha tourist destination, which opened its visitors center 12 years ago, is collecting another $10 million for a conservatory endowment and plans to spend $1.5 million on signs directing drivers to the gardens.
Organizers of the project said an indoor space to showcase warm-weather gardens has always been part of the long-term plan for Lauritzen. And after years of improvement in the number of visitors — more than 175,000 people stop by every year — they said it's clear that there's enough interest to support such a big addition.
“We've seen tremendous growth and community acceptance and community appreciation of the project,” said Spencer Crews, Lauritzen's executive director. “It seemed like a logical time to make this gigantic step forward.”
The conservatory project is backed by Heritage Services, a nonprofit fundraising group that has gathered millions of dollars for projects including the CenturyLink Center, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Durham Museum. In 1999, Heritage raised $6.5 million to build Lauritzen's visitors center.
Heritage President Susan Morris said the “stunning design” for the conservatory from architects at HDR stands out in a long list of substantial projects.
While well-known conservatories built around the turn of the 20th century tended to be dome-shaped and dominated by iron framework, the Lauritzen conservatory will take an entirely different shape. The glass building will stem out from the existing visitors center, appearing to take the shape of a tropical flower called a Heliconia, designers said. (Crews said plenty of Heliconia will be grown inside.)
Design work on the project began over a year ago.
Bruce Carpenter, a senior vice president of HDR, said he, Crews and others visited several cities with conservatories to get a sense of what might work in Omaha. They settled on a more modern, open design that used a hilly setting to its benefit.
Visitors entering the conservatory through the visitors center will pass a waterfall and enter the largest of the building's three sections: a 10,000-square-foot tropical house. From there, visitors can meander along paths that include a gradual uphill climb into the 5,000-square-foot temperate house. That section of the conservatory will feature plants most commonly found in the southeastern United States.
“Everybody knows about azaleas and rhododendrons and magnolias and things we'd love to have, but can't, in Nebraska,” Crews said. “But we can have them in here.”
The floral gallery, a smaller space at the end of the building, will be used for rotating displays and could be reserved for small gatherings or weddings. It will probably seat about 75 people.
Crews said one of the most notable aspects of the design is that it is built into a hill, providing different angles from which to view the displays.
“We've taken advantage of this 20-foot elevation change to allow the guests, as they're experiencing the garden, to sort of look back over where they've been and look up at where they're going to be,” he said.
The top donor on the project is the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation, an organization founded by Daugherty, the founder of Valmont Industries. Heritage Services declined to say how much the foundation donated, but the conservatory will be named for Daugherty's wife, Marjorie.
Robert and Marjorie's son, Rob Daugherty, said the project is a fitting tribute to his mother, who was an avid vegetable and flower gardener. Marjorie Daugherty died in 2002 at the age of 81. Robert Daugherty died in 2010 at 88.
“It's just a marvelous testament to some of the things she loved in life,” Rob Daugherty said.
Organizers expect the work on the conservatory to be completed by late 2014. The new attraction will require Lauritzen to add four or five staff members, though those expenses are likely to be offset by added foot traffic. One study estimates that the conservatory could help boost paid adult admissions by 20 to 40 percent and increase membership by 10 percent.
Carpenter, of HDR, said the facility should help change the way people think about activities in colder months.
“I think what this adds is a great respite in the winter,” Carpenter said. “I don't think a lot of people know that Lauritzen Gardens is a great place to go now on a cold snowy day.”
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