In 1932, Arthur G. McKee and Waldo E. Sexton opened McKee Jungle Gardens on an 80-acre tropical hammock in Vero Beach, Florida. The two land developers employed landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, from the esteemed firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the basic infrastructure of streams, ponds and trails while they focused their efforts on assembling one of the most outstanding collections of waterlilies and orchids ‐ augmenting native vegetation with ornamental plants and exotic specimens from around the world. By the 1940’s, more than 100,000 tourists were visiting the Gardens each year, deeming it one of Florida’s earliest and most popular natural attractions.
In the early 1970's, the development of I-95 and competition from large-scale attractions caused attendance to decline. By 1976 the Gardens were forced to close, and the property was sold and zoned for development. All but 18 acres were developed into condominiums while the remaining land lay dormant for twenty years. In 1994, the Indian River Land Trust launched a fund- raising campaign and successfully purchased the property. An additional $9 million was raised to purchase, stabilize and restore the Garden, and in November 2001 a formal dedication ceremony was held for McKee Botanical Garden.
With a renewed focus on native horticulture, the Garden remains true to its jungle heritage, featuring 10,000 native and tropical plants as well as one of the area's largest collections of waterlilies. The Hall of Giants and Spanish Kitchen, historic to the Garden, were both meticulously restored to Sexton’s original vision, and in 2002 the United State’s first permitted bamboo structure was built on site.
McKee has garnered national attention in publications such as Better Homes and Gardens, Coastal Living, House and Garden, Southern Living and The New York Times, and was named one of "22 Secret Gardens – Soothing Places of Surprise and Sanctuary in the U.S. and Canada" by National Geographic Traveler. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and endorsed by The Garden Conservancy as a project of national significance.
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