The history of Shangri La began with H.J. Lutcher Stark, a prominent philanthropist who resided in Orange, Texas. Inspired by the mystical retreat represented in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, Stark sought to create his own haven of indescribable beauty where time would stand still. His vision became a reality in 1937 when he began creating Shangri-La Botanical Gardens within significant acreage owned by him along Adams Bayou in his hometown of Orange, Texas.
Nine years of planning and construction followed, with Stark overseeing every detail. The gardens included a Cypress-Tupelo swamp, camellias, and breathtaking azaleas, Stark’s personal favorite. There was also no shortage of wildlife, with swans, ducks, egrets, otters, rabbits, and more.
In 1946, H.J. Lutcher Stark opened his private oasis to the public. Word of its beauty spread throughout the country, and by 1950 thousands of visitors travelled to Orange to experience Shangri-La’s wonder during the few weeks the azaleas were blooming each spring. The secluded utopia quickly became a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.
Unfortunately, in 1958, disaster struck Lutcher Stark’s perfect paradise. A major snowstorm invaded Southeast Texas and gripped its icy fingers around Shangri-La. The majority of the plants, among them Stark’s beloved azaleas, were destroyed in the freeze. With a heavy heart, Lutcher Stark closed Shangri-La to the public, and it would remain that way for nearly 50 years.