When the Oklahoma City Council approved a $2 Million renovation of the Ed Lycan Conservatory in Will Rogers Park, I was happily surprised. No, actually, I was stunned and grateful. Located in Will Rogers Park, The Ed Lycan Conservatory is special to me. To learn more about its history and reconstruction, you can watch one of several videos. For more city history, check out the video library of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Here’s how bad the conservatory looked before restoration.
In the last decade, Oklahoma City has decided to take pride in its structures and history. This wasn’t always so. I grew up during the time of Urban Renewal when my downtown landscape lost much of its flavor to the wrecking ball and dynamite in a bid for modernity. Although the link in Wikipedia refers to the Pei Plan named after I.M. Pei, who designed our Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory, there was much more to this plan than the central park that became the Myriad Botanical Gardens. The public relations video below is dorky at best, but it shows what city officials had in mind. I think Nancy (whose last name I couldn’t decipher) in the video said it best, “It reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of cities being rebuilt after WWII.” Check out the destruction at 5:14. There’s more destruction at 13:21. I watched them blow up The Black Hotel when I was a child. There were also miles of city neighborhoods destroyed in the name of progress. What on Earth were they thinking???
Oh, and I don’t want to sound “bitchy,” but the Oklahoma Theater Center, described at 6:27, which was designed and built by architect John Johansen–a student of Frank Lloyd Wright–now faces demolition because it’s been in a state of decay since a downtown flood in 2010. It won an American Institute of Architects award in 1972 and is an important, if eclectic artifact. It is being replaced with another multi-story office building.
The Pei Plan wasn’t fully implemented because Oklahoma fell into a recession, and there was no money to build. So, for years, we had a half-empty downtown. No galleria. No indoor shopping center. Much has changed over the years, but as a teen, I was embarrassed and sad.
One success of the Pei Plan was the Crystal Bridge and the Myriad Botanical Gardens. I wrote an article for Oklahoma Gardener a couple of months ago featuring our downtown oasis and conservatory. The conservatory was also fully renovated recently.
Public reaction was and continues to be negative about many of our city’s changes in the 1960s and 1970s. To me, it was a policy a little like throwing out the baby, or maybe several babies, with the bathwater. Current thinking hearkens back to our early city founders, and the Ed Lycan Conservatory is a reflection of their generosity of spirit.
For most of my childhood, I lived in the Lycan’s shadow. Our home was only a few blocks away at 3601 N.W. 26th Street. I grew up in the late 1970s, a time of elephant bell bottom jeans and the last vestiges of hippie clothing way before the Internet, cell phones and social media. Television was an anathema to my mother. She said it would rot my brain, and I was sent outside until dinner. Our neighborhood was full of children, and we managed to play outdoors from May until Autumn. In summer, each morning, after my sister, Nita, and I finished our chores, we walked or rode our bikes to the swimming pool at Will Rogers Park. Children were pretty much left to their own devisings, and one thing we loved more than most was swimming. Mom generally knew where we were, but this was when predators were only wolves in storybooks.At least, so we thought.
Sometimes, after a day of swimming, I would be so tired I could barely raise my arms above my head, and I would call on the pay phone begging my mom for a ride. If she acquiesced, we usually drove past the conservatory. I found it mysterious. Other times, I’d get bored swimming and would walk over to that shining glass house on the hill.
I didn’t know it was named after Oklahoma City’s first city florist, Ed Lycan, who worked for the city for forty years. I wasn’t aware its structure was crumbling. I only saw it as a magical place full of tropical plants and cacti. I often wondered why the cacti was in one room, and the tropicals in another because I wasn’t a gardener then. Now I know they had different growing requirements. It’s funny the things we carry from childhood, good and bad. This dream of glass houses, I still carry with me. I am obsessed with them and the people who brought exotic plants home from countries far away. What dreams they must have had! The Victorian and Edwardian periods were the height of glass house and conservatory construction. We have three in Oklahoma now, but we once had more. The Ed Lycan Conservatory in Oklahoma and the Victorian conservatory in Tulsa, both Lord and Burnham, and of course the Crystal Bridge in Oklahoma City. Once upon a time, there was a glass house in Honor Heights Park in Muskogee. How do I know? I have an old postcard showing it from inside. The card is dated 1914. It did once exist.
But this isn’t a post of sadness over things lost. It’s simple joy that our Oklahoma City greenhouse wasn’t torn down and lost to history. Winn Construction, Inc. won the bid to rebuild the conservatory and Rodd Moesel’s company, American Plant Products and Services, Inc., supplied the tempered greenhouse glass and other supplies. Everyone wanted our glass house to retain its Victorian look, and to do that they used real glass. However, glass has come a long way in 100 years. The old, single-pane glass was replaced with low-e glass filled with radon and tempered for safety. Only one company in the U.S. could bend the size of glass. Builders left the original stonework built by a WPA camp under Henry Walters. The stem walls weren’t square, and they had to be level for the roof to open and close so retaining this footprint made construction much more complicated. Builders replaced the original cedar for steel because it can handle the weight of the new glass. Roof bars were made of aluminum, and they added motorized shade systems that slide across based upon sun and heat. The glass vents open automatically, and they use evaporative cooling now. It was passive cooling before which means breezes. Although they saved the historic wheels for esthetics, they can no longer be opened for safety reasons.
Behind the conservatory are four working greenhouses. Sadly, someone broke in, stole the copper pipes, and in the winter weather, we lost most of the historic cactus. The Central Oklahoma Cactus and Succulent Society stepped up and donated plants which will permanently reside in one wing. Heating of the conservatory is done by a boiler in the working houses. One hundred forty degree water is pumped in the pipes and under the floor.
The city drafted the design, and everything down to the last detail is like the original Lord and Burnham house. In fact, they took pieces of the original conservatory and matched everything including the roofline. Although the original greenhouse was in cedar, you can’t get that quality anymore for a project of this size. However, the used wood trim wherever they could.
I’m grateful to Rodd, the city council, Winn Construction and everyone who worked on this project. Like I wrote above, the Ed Lycan Conservatory is part of my childhood. It was also part of the city’s history for the last 100 years, and now It will continue to be in the next century. That’s something to cheer about.