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What Made Orange Great: The Stark Foundation has been contributing to Orange for 60 years

By Mike Louviere

The Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation was established in 1961. It continues the legacy of its founders through the programs of the Stark Museum of Art, The W.H. Stark House, Frances Ann Lutcher Theater for Performing Arts, Miriam Lutcher Stark Contest in Reading and Declamation, and Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center.

The Stark Museum of Art houses one of the nation’s finest collections of paintings, sculptures, prints, and rare books that interpret the west from the 19th Century frontier artists to the 20th Century colonies in New Mexico. In addition to artists such as Frederick Remington, James Audubon, and Charles Russell there is also a collection of American Indian baskets, pottery, rugs, clothing, and jewelry.

The museum houses the only complete set of The United States in Crystal by Steuben Glass. There are also collections of birds by Edward Marshall Boehm and Dorothy Doughty whose collection includes complete sets of American and British birds.

Stark began collecting while an undergraduate at the University of Texas. As early as 1927, he was discussing opening a museum. He continued to collect until his death in 1965. Sadly, he did not live to see the museum open since it did not open until November 29, 1978.

The Stark Foundation continues to collect and today the museum houses one of the most significant collections of western art in the United States.

The W. H. Stark House is a 14, 000 square foot, three story home that is standing as it did at the turn of the 20th Century. There are 15 rooms with original furnishings, personal effects, and decorative arts. The house was built in 1894 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is also designated as a Texas Historical Landmark by the Texas Historical Commission.

The house was the home of W.H. Stark, his wife Miriam Lutcher Stark and their son H.J. Lutcher Stark who lived in the home until he enrolled at the University of Texas.

In addition to the family, there were at least 20 other people who were servants or relatives of servants living on the grounds of the home.

Near the house was a servant’s quarters split into apartments. The head gardener lived in the carriage house with his wife and nine children.

The Frances Ann Lutcher Theater for the Preforming Arts is the largest performing arts series between Houston and New Orleans. The theater is owned by the Stark Foundation and operated by Lutcher Theater, Inc. The theater seats 1,460 patrons.

The theater opened in 1980 with a performance by Liberace. Since its opening it has hosted performances from Broadway productions to country music artists.

Lutcher Theater, Inc. is active in community programs to benefit the area. It has hosted food drives, fundraisers, and other charitable events.

Lutcher Incredible Kids brings a performing arts series of touring companies for children in the region. Performances are held in the mornings and meet criteria set by Southeast Texas and Southwestern Louisiana educators. There are grants and patron support, the Lutcher Theater underwrites the cost of the Kids Event Series.

In 1904, Miriam Lutcher Stark and her son, Lutcher, began a contest in reading and declamation. It has continued since that time in the public high schools in Orange county.

In 1976, the Miriam Lutcher Stark Contest in Reading and Declamation became a scholarship program of the Stark Foundation. The contest is held in the spring at each of the five public high schools in Orange County. The aim of the Stark Reading Contest is to encourage student participation and competition in forensics. After competing at their individual schools in both reading and declamation, the students then compete in a county wide final contest. The contest is for the best presentation in declaring and in interpretive reading.

The individuals who place first and second receive scholarships and all participants receive gold watches. The presentation of the watches to the finalists is a tradition that started in the early years of the competition.

This year, 2021, was the 117th year of the competition. It saw an unusual happening, there was a tie for first place between Toyen Le of Bridge City High School and Mary Wernig of Orangefield High School.

Each first-place winner receives a $5,000 scholarship and each second-place winner receives a $2,500 scholarship.

The contest is open to any fulltime student in grades nine through 12 in any of the five public high schools in Orange County. To enter a student needs to contact the SRC Director at their school, make a selection from the approved speaking or reading list and fill out the required forms.

The Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center comprises over 250 acres along the Adams Bayou waterway. Inside, one can walk the garden paths and see flowers, birdwatch for hours, and generally enjoy nature.

There are programs such as Eco Rangers, Wild Wednesdays, Summer Reading Programs, Up Close With Nature, Adult Workshops, Saturday Adventure Series, and Bird Watching Wednesdays.

Stark began creating Shangri La in 1937. Over nine years of planning and construction followed. In the gardens were camellias and azaleas and a cypress-tupelo swamp.

In 1946, Stark opened the park to the public and visitors came by the thousands to visit the impressive nature park. Events in 1958 led to the closing of the park and it remained closed to the public for nearly 50 years.

The reopening of the park saw changes. Instead of just being a park for people to walk through and observe the plants, animals, birds, it has become an educational center as well as a place of beauty.