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Butterfly Gardens and Overlook

How the Butterfly Gardens and Overlook came to be.
By Chris Cotten, Director Joplin Parks and Recreation

The Overlook concept was first envisioned by former City Manager Mark Rohr.  The initial concept was vastly different from what was built.  The original concept was simply storyboards telling the story and a pavilion of some sort.  Walmart initially donated $250,000 to help redevelop the park and a large part of those redevelopment funds were going to the project.  Due to the amount of total devastation to the park, the Overlook area was put last on the list of things to be accomplished.  The property had to be first bought, the remains of the three houses torn down, the basements filled in and plans to be drawn.

Keith Tidball initially contacted me immediately after the tornado about the TKF, Open Spaces Sacred Places concept.  I was so busy I told him to “get back with me in about a year”.  About a year later he did and as he explained the concept for the Open Spaces and Sacred Places I began to see how the Overlook Concept and the TKF concept could be worked into one project.  A project that honored those we lost and those that had to rebuild their lives and deal with the emotional baggage left behind.

Due to the extremely heavy work load involved with rebuilding three parks and an aquatic center destroyed in the May 22 event I reached out to Traci Sooter at my alma mater, Drury University.  Traci and Nancy Chikaraishi did a wonderful job in regards to the Volunteer Tribute that was built in Cunningham Park as part of the Extreme Home Makeover project in October of 2011.  I simply did not have the time to coordinate a project of this magnitude on my own with my existing workload and had Traci, Nancy and Drury University not been up to the challenge the Butterfly Garden concept of the Overlook project would not have happened. 

The Joplin Parks Department and the Drury Architecture Department put together a phenomenal team for the project.  The project took a long time from start to finish but it was worth the effort.  I am proud to have had a role in the project, especially being able to work with my alma mater.  The real recognition for the role played in this project from the City goes to the Joplin Parks and Recreation maintenance staff, for without their construction trade knowledge and experience the project would not have been possible to accomplish staying within the budget we had to work with.   City government moves slow, but with the support of the Joplin City Council, current City Manager Sam Anselm, and former City Manager Mark Rohr and the love for Cunningham Park by the citizens of Joplin the project was and is a phenomenal success. 

Design and Construction

Students and professors developed the conceptual design of the Butterfly Garden & Overlook and Design-Built 6 of the elements in the garden through the Design-Build Program in the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University in collaboration with the Joplin Parks and Recreation department led by Chris Cotten. The design was collaborative from beginning to end and through construction, including many community members, some of which were survivors of the tornado.

The five student design-build elements:

  • 38 minute water wall
  • Broken Void water feature
  • Healed Void water feature
  • Butterfly Pavilion
  • Story Boards
  • Healing Bench

Joplin Parks & Recreation department built all of the infrastructure of project and gave their heart and soul to making it happen and continue to maintain and care for the project today. Great River and Associates did the design development through construction documents including designing symbology behind the plants and flowers.

The student design elements were developed and prefabricated through an architecture studio course at Drury University. Students worked with JPR during a 10 day “Blitz Build” on site to install the 6 elements. A SmartMob! (A flash mob with a purpose) of 60+ students, staff and faculty converged on the site to install the walls of the garden among other things. Music Therapy Students from Drury University created a Rejuvenation Station by playing music to motivate, uplift and rejuvenate those constructing. Volunteers from the community worked throughout the week.

The plants were installed by volunteers from the community led by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Joplin master Gardeners Club.

Joplin Parks & Recreation team

  • Chris Cotten, Director
  • Steve Curry
  • Jeremy Glenn
  • John Graham
  • Aaron Callis
  • Jonathan Alejandro
  • Jason Cowen
  • Sara Fisher
  • Jason Cowen
  • Adam Forrest
  • William Davis
  • Rick Porter
  • Jonathan Alejandro
  • Buddy Scott
  • Mike McDaniel

Student Design-Build team

  • Eric Foster
  • Olivia Freese
  • Stacie Good
  • Jon Hays
  • Michael Ligibel
  • Grace Lounsbury
  • Kanna Matsuo
  • Sam McBride
  • Madison Miles
  • Jacob Nentrup
  • Olivia Snell
  • Lauren Southard
  • Josh Storey
  • Brian Vanne
  • Trevor Wellman
  • Brandon White


  • Traci Sooter, AIA, LEED AP, Director Design-Build Program
  • Nancy Chikaraishi, AIA, Associate Professor
  • Keith Hedges, AIA, NCARB

Music Therapy Rejuvenation Station Students


  • Dr. Natalie Wlodarczyk

Drury SmartMob!

  • 60+ Drury students, staff and Faculty

Research Students


  • Dr. Jennifer Silva-Brown

The design of the Butterfly Garden and Overlook recreates the outline of three homes erased by the 2011 Joplin tornado, provides a pavilion, water features, storyboards, a butterfly garden and four sacred spaces with benches and journals that provide a space for which to reflect and heal.

The design weaves together four main conceptual design ideas derived from Worden’s four tasks of Mourning with the four elements of every TKF Open Space Sacred Place. These tasks describe the means by which a healthy person works through the pain of grieving for a loved one or something lost, and moves into the next phase of life. Architectural and natural elements symbolically represent the tasks as a person moves through the gardens.

During the May 22, 2011 tornado over 8,500 homes were erased from the Joplin. The design suggests “penciling in” the outline of 3 homes that were destroyed on the site of the gardens. This metaphorical sketch of the homes responds to Worden’s first task, accepting the reality of the loss and our assignment of that task, the Portal. Visitors will pass through the same location of what was the portal of the lost home, the front door.

The Path takes the visitor on a journey around the site allowing for Processing the Pain of Grief and promoting reflection.

There are four areas that act as destination along the path and provide a space to Adjust to a World Without the Deceased (or what was lost). All four spaces include benches, a small bubbling water feature and journals, and in addition, the fourth has a water wall tiled with drawings made by local children adding hierarchy to the space and tranquil sound to the experience. All of the water features represent the renewal of the community.

Along with eleven native Missouri shade trees and native plantings the unifying circle of the “Butterfly Garden” provides an encompassing sense of boundary, safety and enclosure within the OSSP. At the Overlook, the “outline” of the house also acts as surround; plaques telling the story of the tornado will educate future generations on the destruction, acts of heroism, survival and the Miracle of the Human Spirit while providing an enduring connection to the deceased (or what was lost). We move on but don’t forget.