The latest addition to Omaha’s Lauritzen Gardens isn’t going to blend into the surrounding landscape of planted perennials and grasses -- even if it is made almost entirely of glass. Standing 20 feet taller at one end than the other so visitors can look out over the Missouri River Valley, the stunning structure was designed to appear as if it were emerging from the hillside. Opening last week, the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory has been a longtime glass dream for Spencer Crews, the garden’s executive director, and garden founders who envisioned it from the beginning. It has been a part of the garden’s master plan since 1996.
The addition of the conservatory will serve the community 12 months out of the year, Crews said. That will make a significant difference for an organization that is, in some ways, “weather-driven,” he said.
Although the outside view is magnificent, this building is all about what’s inside. Chad Grimm, landscape architect for the project, made sure of that; he lives in Florida but has Omaha roots. With more than 17,000 square feet on three different levels, the structure invites visitors to walk from one growing zone to another -- tropical to temperate -- taking in the “pockets” of different plant experiences as they go.
Grimm has a long history with Lauritzen Gardens and designed some of the outside garden areas there. He even drew up the original conservatory concepts years ago when the group began some concrete fundraising.
As the dream became a reality, Grimm and the rest of the planning group wanted to make this glass house different from others that already existed. “We wanted to make sure to set ourselves apart,” he said. “We focused on what would bring people here to see this.”
One major difference was the elevation change within the walls of the conservatory. “Usually a structure like this is flat,” he said. These changes offer multiple overlooks and views but presented an engineering challenge.
The structure itself was a collaboration between the architecture and engineering firm HDR, conservatory consultants Rough Brothers Inc., Grimm’s CG Studio and general contractor Peter Kiewit & Sons.
And choosing to present specific “gardens” in the conservatory is different, too. About 10,000 square feet of the space has tropical gardens, and another 5,000 square feet has temperate (zone 7 or 8) plants with a Savannah aesthetic. “I’m sure we are the only one with that focus,” he said of the temperate zone.
Within those large spaces are smaller areas where visitors can stop and see individual gardens. Take, for instance, the “fern grotto,” which has 50 species of tropical ferns, each one with a plant tag recording important horticultural information. “In three years, the fern grotto may take over the hardscape,” Grimm said. “It should be really cool.”
Three years is a magic time span for plant development. Plants that may be sparse now should grow and flourish -- or in some cases die out and be replaced -- during that time, according to Grimm. Hopefully by then the hardscape, such as walls and paths, and plant life will merge and visitors will see “indoor rooms.”
The amount of plants used for a project like this is complicated beyond just the numbers, and it took some heavy-duty horticultural coordination to make it happen. Plants were shipped in from 64 nurseries, then taken to a staging area at Lanoha Nurseries. Eventually more than 2,000 plants were laid in the tons of soil that was brought into the tropical and temperate gardens.
Picking favorites among all of the plants is too difficult for Grimm, but he is excited about the prospect of having Southern live oaks dressed with Spanish moss in the temperate garden. “It will be very unique,” he said.
In the tropical house, Grimm said the bright colors used will pop in the space. Crotons and the red-leaved palms are just two of the plants with colorful foliage, he said.
As with all gardens, Grimm knows some plants will like their new environment, and others won’t. “They are in shock right now,” he said, many coming from long distances to get to their new home. Will the fern grotto need more shade? Grimm isn’t sure.
“Plants are live creatures,” he said. “The garden experience is an ever-changing one.”
In addition to the green space, plenty of water spaces balance the hardscape. From the 10-foot waterfall that greets those on the ground floor to a mini-river that flows from top to bottom, the sounds and habitat of the water is an integral part of the aesthetic.
The glass house and gardens are the visible result of years of planning and work, but a project like this one took lots of planning on many different fronts.
Sue Morris of Heritage Services, which coordinated the fundraising efforts, said the lead donor was the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation, which honored his late wife, Marjorie. Daugherty is the founder of Valmont Industries.
Morris said there were several major donors, and all of the funds came from private sources. Heritage Services coordinated the financing, design and construction efforts.
At the same time the new project opens, a 10-acre woodland trail, which can be entered at the top of the conservatory, reopens. It leads to a path through the century-old grove of bur oak trees with views of the Missouri River.