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Finding Shangri La

TreeHouse founder Jason Ballard recounts how one powerful place changed his life.

Buildings and nature in harmony.

By the time I was born in 1982, Orange, Texas, my hometown, had already been swallowed up by industry. Orange fronts the Sabine River, the broad, muddy border between Texas and Louisiana, at the precise point where the river folds back on itself in a sinuous oxbow. There, shipyards and factories and downtown warehouses crowd the shoreline, a mere 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, giving ready access to ports throughout the world. A few miles downriver the tanks and steam towers of a massive chemical plant rise from what was once pristine coastal prairie. At night, the glimmering lights on the superstructure make the whole place look like a thrilling city, but when dawn rises, the reality of the industrial wasteland again shows its face. As a boy, I didn’t understand the forces that shaped Orange. I accepted my reality even if I didn’t necessarily like it. I found it unsettling, even if I didn’t understand why.

The industrial sprawl around Orange still saddens me, but I understand why it came about and how, during the postwar 1940s and ’50s, as America shook off decades of hard times, the arrival of a new chemical plant was a godsend that meant jobs for families. Including mine.

Like thousands of others, my grandparents—both sets—moved to Orange after the war looking for work. They came from deep East Texas. Fueled by hope, necessity and a serious streak of practicality, each of my grandfathers hand-built a home for his wife and family-to-be. My grandparents—both sets—live under those same roofs today.

Like lots of East Texas boys, I grew up hunting and fishing. The woods around Orange were my second home. The more connected I felt to the natural world, the more jarring I found the industrial sprawl gobbling up nearby forests and fields. Refinery row reminded me of Mordor, the wasteland in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and left me feeling confused and hopeless about the built environment—until I discovered Shangri La.

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“We go to wilderness places to be restored, to be instructed in the natural economies of fertility and healing, to admire what we cannot make…. And we go in order to return with renewed knowledge by which to judge the health of our human economy and our dwelling places.”

WENDELL BERRY, “GETTING ALONG WITH NATURE”

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Bayou Oasis

In 1937, Lutcher Stark, heir to a timber fortune, began building an ambitious botanical garden on 250 acres he owned along the Adams Bayou in Orange, his hometown. He named it Shangri La after the mythical idyll of beauty, peace and enlightenment. In 1946, Stark opened his private oasis to the public. For years, locals and out-of-town visitors alike flocked to Shangri La to stroll its oyster-shell paths past stunning azalea gardens and a cypress-tupelo swamp teeming with otters, egrets, ducks and other wildlife. Sadly, the brutally cold winter of 1958 killed most of the plants, forcing Stark to close Shangri La. Stark died in 1965, and Shangri La slipped from public consciousness for the next four decades.

Though I passed Old Man Stark’s place countless times—the crumbling dragon entry gate was only 10 minutes from our house—I had no idea what mysteries awaited beyond the tall walls, fences and hedges. No one did, not even the adults. In 2001, I left for Texas A&M, eager to study fisheries and wildlife and secretly relieved to see Orange’s smokestacks fading in my rearview mirror. Later, home for summer break, I learned that the charitable foundation left behind by Stark was completing a massive restoration of Shangri La. One day, we all piled into the family car, eager to satisfy years of pent-up curiosity.

Strolling the grounds, I couldn’t believe what I saw—a snaking bayou, lined with ancient cypress and tupelo barely two miles from the billowing chemical plant! Osprey and egrets soared above the tannin-black waters searching for fish. The beauty left me speechless. This, I realized, is what Mordor once looked like.

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For more than 1,200 years, Adams Bayou has nurtured this pond cypress. Dubbed the Survivor Tree, it was nearly 700 years old when Columbus reached the Americas.

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Sparking a deeper epiphany were the garden’s new buildings. Each one—the visitor center, nature lab, outdoor classrooms, bird blind, boat house and screened pavilion perched at the edge of Adams Bayou—seemed to have sprouted organically. Floating on helical pier foundations, the structures were at once solidly rooted in place and delicately balanced for minimal impact. For the first time ever, I encountered nature and the built environment existing in harmony.

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Touchstone of Hope

I’ve long been interested in how architecture affects us emotionally and psychologically. Design, far more than aesthetics, determines how we interact with buildings and how buildings impact our communities and world. Good design produces buildings that respond to place, meet our human needs, perform well and conserve resources. These are the building blocks of beauty.

The beauty of Shangri La’s new buildings shook me to the core. Designed by the San Antonio firm Lake Flato, Shangri La was the first LEED platinum design in Texas and only the 50th in the world. The structures incorporated old bricks salvaged from existing on-site structures and drew power from hidden rooftop solar panels.

I always thought important architecture only happened in Rome or New York or certain state capitals. Finding it 10 minutes from my house restored my hometown pride and filled me with newfound optimism. Though I had never heard of green building, Lake Flato’s sensitive design planted the seed that grew to become my calling.

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Shangri La remains a personal touchstone. When I met the woman who would become my wife, I took her to Shangri La to show her this place that means so much to me. I often make the pilgrimage when I visit my family in Orange.

“We seek two things from our buildings,” writes Alain de Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. “We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us—to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.”

From the moment I saw Shangri La, the place spoke to me. It still does.

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