Let the bells ring. Shangri La is opening.

The public will be able to walk through the botanical gardens and nature center after the opening ceremony Tuesday morning, March 11.

Lutcher Stark in the 1930s named his private gardens along Adams Bayou after the mythical mountain utopia in James Hilton’s bestselling book, Lost Horizon. In the book, and later movie, a bell rings when a visitor enters Shangri La. Stark collected bells as part of the atmosphere.

The dedication ceremony of the new Shangri La Botanical Garden and Nature Center begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 11, and will include a ceremonial ringing of the bell to announce that the park is once again open to the public. Instead of cutting a ribbon, a vine will be cut.

Shangri La has been developed and will be operated by the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation of Orange.

Shangri La is divided into two sections—the designed botanical gardens that will have changing flowers with the seasons, and the nature center left in a natural state.
 Education is one of the main goals with different areas for learning for ages from pre-kindergarten up to graduate university degrees.

Visitors will ride on electric pontoon boats to reach outposts in the nature center.
Admission to each section is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors aged 65 and older, $5 for students ages 13 through 17, and $4 for students age 4 through 12. Children age 3 and younger will be admitted free with an adult. Children must be at least 4 years old to go to the outposts.

Admission to both sections is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $8 for students 13 through 17, and $6 for students 4 through 12.

Single and family yearlong memberships will be available and allow free entry during the years, along with discounts and special members-only events.

Parking for the first few months will be in downtown Orange at the Stark Museum of Art or the Lutcher Theater, both operated by the foundation. Shuttle buses will take visitors to the gardens.

The foundation is building a parking lot off Park Avenue at 20th Street and Burton Avenue, the former site of the Thomen Community Center. However, parking lot construction has not started. The entrance to Shangri La is across the street from the site.

The City of Orange passed an ordinance last week banning all but residential parking along Park Avenue between 16th Street and Burton. Residents and their guests will be allowed to get city permits to park in the zone.

Earlier this month, Shangri La was awarded the rare “platinum” rating for being one of the most ecologically “green” complexes in the world. It is the first complex in Texas to earn the rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Shangri La is the first in Texas to get a platinum rating and only the 50th in the world.

“It’s a pretty fantastic thing,” said Director Michael Hoke. “It wasn’t easy for us to do.”

Hoke praised the foundation’s board of directors for supporting the effort to be green. Buildings were constructed using recycled materials, when available, and were designed to be energy efficient and use little city water. Solar energy panels create electricity for the complex and its boats and carts. Boardwalks in the swamp were made of “boards” from recycled plastic milk jugs. Hoke said besides the buildings, the land was developed using “green” methods. Shangri La used old asphalt from the state’s Green Avenue repaving project for the parking lot.

The platinum rating is known as “LEED” for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

The foundation announced in March 2002 that Shangri La would be developed and opened to the public. Lutcher Stark, a timber heir from the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Co. who became a businessman, oilman and philanthropist, acquired more than 250 acres along the bayou and Park Avenue, which was then U.S. Hwy. 90.

Before Sixteenth Street cut from Park Avenue to Green Avenue, much of the land from Fifteenth Street to the bayou was included in Shangri La.

Stark made the site into a garden retreat and bird sanctuary. Hundreds of azalea bushes were planted through the gardens, along with other flowers. After World War II and into the late 1950s, Stark would sometimes open the gardens to the public.

Shangri La drew thousands of visitors during those times. The gardens were also featured in prominent garden magazines.

But the gardens closed to the public in the late 1950s. Stark died in 1965 at the age of 75. His widow, and third wife, Nelda, died in December 1999, leaving most of the family fortune and property to the foundation.