Sunrise Garden Center is only the latest in a long line of greenhouse growing operations on this site. Ralph Ward opened a retail florist shop in downtown Lawrence in 1920. He built the greenhouses at 15th and New York in the 1920’s, where he grew the stock for his cut flower trade. The greenhouse super-structure of iron frame and glass was a product of Lord and Burnham, then as now the world’s premier greenhouse manufacturer.
The glass houses were removed in the 1950’s, updated with more modern roof materials. But there still exist some obvious relics of Ward’s original 1920 greenhouse. The massive concrete smokestack is a reminder of the many years that the greenhouses were heated by steam. A coal-fired boiler in the basement pumped steam through a labyrinth of pipes beneath the greenhouse benches. The boiler was converted to fuel oil sometime after World War II, and with the availability of natural gas-fired heaters, the boiler was only a standby source of heat. It was rarely used in the 1950’s. The boiler was removed many years ago, but the smokestack looks good for another century.
Generations of employees and customers have barked their shins on the low concrete benches still used in parts of the greenhouses. These benches also date back to Ralph Ward’s 1920 green-house. The benches are 4” thick concrete slabs, many of them supported by halves of Model A Ford rear axels. These are the remains of growing benches. 8-10” wooden sideboards held a soil mix used to grow all the stock of the florist trade: spring bulbs, annuals, iris, roses, gladiolus, lilies, freesia and so on. Originally all three ranges of the greenhouse were filled with these knee busters. In fits and starts they have been replaced. They probably won’t last as long as the smokestack.
Jim Owens bought the greenhouse and florist business in 1945. The greenhouse was still primarily a cut flower growing operation, but the Jet Age brought changes to the American florist trade.
Affordable cut flowers began to arrive air freight from countries that either specialized – Holland bulbs, for example – or countries like Costa Rico which had three growing seasons and no winter. Mr. Owens expanded the business with retail sales of spring bedding plants, fruits, vegetable starts, flowers and home landscaping services.Jim continued in the florist business into the 1970’s but sold the greenhouse to Fred Pence in 1962.
Pence’s Garden Center operated for 32 years. Fred further increased the retail nursery and landscaping business, yet over the years countless tens of thousands of potted bulbs, geraniums, annuals, chrysanthemums and poinsettias continued to be grown. Similarly, there have been an awful lot of Lawrence residents who got their first job working in the Garden Center, many of whom found their careers in horticulture.
Fred died in 1994. The current business, Sunrise Garden Center, assumed operations in 1996. It is a full service, independent garden center offering a complete line of products and services for the Lawrence gardening community. The days of florist cut flowers are long gone, yet we continue to grow the majority of the herbaceous crops we sell, day in, day out, in this historic Lawrence business.