Lutcher Stark loved his Shangri La gardens and the beauty of nature. Now, 47 years after his death, the Stark Foundation wants to pass on Stark’s love to the public.

Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center opened to the public on Tuesday morning.

Walter Riedel, president and CEO of the foundation, told the media Monday that Shangri La and its environmentally-friendly construction will show “how people can live in harmony with nature.”

Michael Hoke, executive director of Shangri La, said the purpose of the gardens and nature center is to “mentor children, of all ages, to be kind to your world.”

Hoke praised the foundation, saying few organizations have the mission of education and “improving the quality of life of a region.”

Shangri La is a part of that mission.

But Shangri La has become more than a nature center to educate and inspire. Officials in the Greater Orange area are hoping it becomes a major tourist destination and grow the local economy.

Mayor Brown Claybar said Shangri La will “help Orange grow and develop as the premier cultural destination for Southeast Texas.”

The cultural aspects of Shangri La are enhanced by other ventures of the Stark Foundation: The Stark Museum of Art, the Lutcher Theater, and the Stark House, an 1890s’ mansion listed as a national historic place.

Claybar said Shangri La is expected to draw up to 40,000 visitors in the first year. The opening has led to the city starting a marketing plan to draw new shops and businesses to town to enhance the tourist industry, he said.

Orange will be a city worth moving to, living in, and investing in, he said.
“We’re going to make it happen,” Claybar said.

Shangri La recently received the prestigious platinum LEED rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The designation is from the Design Green Building Council and Shangri La is only the 50th to receive the top rating.

Aluminum chairs at the café are made from recycled cans. Boardwalks look like wood, but are made of recycled plastic milk jugs. Solar panels generate electricity and a cistern system collects rainwater to water the gardens.

Buildings were made of brick from old buildings and “sinker cypress,” salvaged off of river bottoms after sinking during the days of the timber age. Cypress trees downed during Hurricane Rita in 2005 were also used in construction of buildings and furniture.
Hoke said a conference of architects will meet at Shangri La in the fall to study the special green construction and design.

Shangri La is 262 acres along Adams Bayou. Most of the land will be left to nature and will be areas for students, from pre-school to graduate studies, to learn and conduct research.

About 25 acres is formal botanical gardens. Gary Outenreath is the horticulturist and was at Moody Gardens in Galveston before moving to Orange four years ago to help plan Shangri La.

Riedel said “teams of creative talent” combined to design and build Shangri La.

Monday, architects, landscape designers, construction company executives, a documentary film maker, and museum designers attended the media conference.
The groundbreaking was held on April 21, 2005. Since then, Shangri La has been hit by two hurricanes and a small fire in the exhibition hall.

Visitors first go to the orientation center filled with the sounds of frogs in a night chorus in Shangri La. Drawings, paintings and photographs tell the story of Lutcher Stark and how he named his cherished garden after the utopian place in James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon.”

Widescreen televisions include interviews with people who knew Stark and their memories about him and the gardens.

Filmmaker Donna Lawrence made the documentary that is shown in the center’s theater. As the movie ends, the huge screen rises to show windows looking out onto the bayou swamp.

Visitors may stroll through greenhouses and the gardens, or take boat rides to nature outposts along the bayou. For adults, the fee will be $5 each, or $8 together.

Memberships will be available to provide unlimited entry to Shangri La for a year, plus special membership offers.

One of the most memorable spots is Ruby Lake with the heronry. Hundreds of huge snowy and great egrets nest in the cypress trees in the lake. Big pink roseate spoonbills will come to roost in the next few weeks. Also in the lake are blue herons and cormorants.

A special bird blind with televisions to show close-ups of the nesting birds is by the lake.

“Shangri La is amazing,” Claybar said.