Architects have drawn the plans, and botanists have gathered the seeds of endangered plants and trees.
Now, to break ground.
The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis will start construction in January on a new, $92 million visitor center, garden officials announced Monday.
The complex will replace the current center and give guests a larger, more accessible and streamlined place to start and stay for their visit.
The Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center is scheduled to open in spring 2022.
The Taylor family donated “a lead gift” for the project, and the rest was privately funded, said Peter Wyse Jackson, president of the garden.
People have been generous with donations, and nobody questioned the need for a new center, Wyse Jackson said.
“No one has said, ‘Oh, I think the current one is fine,’” he said with a chuckle.
The current Ridgway Visitor Center was built in 1982, meant to accommodate 250,000 visitors a year. Now, the garden welcomes nearly 1 million visitors annually, and getting them through the doors and into the garden sometimes can be a confusing squeeze.
“People would come in and not know where the garden was,” he said. In the new center, “it will be much more obvious that the garden opens up to you.”
The current center, at 4344 Shaw Boulevard, has two levels, with one small elevator that parents with strollers or people using wheelchairs often wait to use. The gift shop and a floral display hall are tucked in back corners. The upstairs hall can be used for weddings and other events, but at limited times, since people visiting the garden have to pass through to exit.
The Ridgway Center, designed by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, is 67,000 square feet and has a glass and steel structure designed to look like London’s Crystal Palace. The new center will be 90,000 square feet and will be built in the footprint of the old center, with extensions into the eastern parking lot and into the plaza area of the current garden.
A few parking spaces on the eastern lot will be lost in the first phase of the building, an event space that can accommodate 330 people seated at tables and 450 for conferences, such as a botanical congress. The space will have a separate exit and entry to the garden.
The Ridgway Center will stay open as the event wing is built, and the garden’s events will go on as usual. The auditorium will serve as a temporary entrance and visitor center starting in early 2021, when work begins on the rest of the building.
The new building, made of Missouri granite and glass, will offer “classical elegance and modern sensibility,” in the spirit of the Spink Pavilion at the east side of the garden, Wyse Jackson said.
The new building was designed by architect Ayers Saint Gross and landscape architect Michael Vergason. Alberici is managing construction. The entire project will be LEED-certified.
Visitors will first see new gardens in front of the building as well as wide pathways and more drop-off areas.
The center will include a lobby with a soaring, 50-foot ceiling that will serve as a beacon of sorts and be visible from Interstate 44, Wyse Jackson said. Ticketing will be streamlined at a single desk, along with membership and other information.
The new center will include a gift shop with outdoor plants, meeting spaces and a restaurant with views of the garden, as well as an option for grab-and-go food. An auditorium will show a film about the garden.
“We’re anxious to be able to get our history and mission right there,” said Bob Woodruff, chief operating officer of the garden. He said that renovating the Ridgway Center was a need noted during a 2008 capital campaign.
A new conservatory will be the new home of the train and orchid shows, and new gardens outside will be the growing spot for rare and endangered plants from around the world that will do well here. The gardens will serve as a “Noah’s ark” for those plants and trees, Wyse Jackson said.
Glass around all sides will give visitors the feeling they are visiting the garden, even if they stay inside. Guests can take in vistas from the building to the Linnean House, a historic ginkgo tree south of the building and the Turkish gardens to the east.
“I think it’s very respectful of the gardens, and I think that’s where Michael Vergason’s genius comes in,” said David Kemper, a donor to the project and chair of the visitor center steering committee. “I think people are very sensitive to the beautiful garden we have now.”
The current fountain just outside the visitors center will be removed, but another fountain will be added. As for the blue-and-white sculpture by glass artist Dale Chihuly that currently hangs in the lobby, garden officials are talking to Chihuly now about the best place to put it.
Garden officials have planned this building for nearly three years, noting what they liked and didn’t like about botanical garden visitor centers across the country and around the world. “The garden is a world leader in so many things,” Wyse Jackson said.
Maybe, he said, other gardens will look to St. Louis about how to build a visitor center.
To see renderings and get updates on the center, visit mobot.org/taylorcenter.
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH