As morning sun flickered through the linden allées of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, guys in hard hats carefully swaddled George Segal’s “Walking Man” in blankets, cut away the anchors under his feet, and hoisted the bronze sculpture into the air with a crane.

The Segal and a bronze horse named “Woodrow” were trucked off to storage Wednesday and won’t be seen again until the summer of 2017. At least a dozen more will follow this week. By late fall almost all of the garden’s 40 sculptures will be gone, leaving only the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” fountain and a couple other massive artworks.

The sculpture removals are the beginning of a two-year, $33.3 million construction project that will dramatically transform the garden and the neighboring Walker Art Center, repositioning them as a gateway to the Hennepin Avenue theater district.

Most of the trees, including all of the garden’s spruce, will be removed next year and replaced by small groves of larch, locust, maple, birch, oak and other deciduous trees. The Cowles Conservatory will be remodeled and the garden’s walkways and infrastructure — irrigation systems, runoff catch basins, restrooms, handicapped facilities, parking lot — will be redone. Even the Walker’s popular mini-golf site will be relocated.

“This is the completion of the master plan for the 19-acre campus including the sculpture garden,” said Walker Director Olga Viso. “It’s the western gateway to downtown that ties into the city’s larger greening and connectivity efforts.”

Who’s paying what

The Walker and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board are collaborating on the project, though they have separate financing.

The Walker has raised $23.3 million in private contributions to reconfigure the land around its building and add an entrance pavilion facing the sculpture garden on the north. That work began this week and is expected to finish in fall 2016. Walker will remain open throughout that process.

The sculpture garden, whose land and infrastructure are owned by the park board, will undergo a $10 million reconstruction paid for with $8.5 million from the state of Minnesota and a $1.5 million grant from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization.

Walker owns all of the garden’s sculpture and is paying for its removal and storage with private money.

Park board officials are still refining details of the garden plans as they struggle to keep costs down. Construction will start next spring with completion planned for summer 2017. The garden will be closed during that time.

“We could really use $3 million more, and you can quote me on that because if someone wants to bring more to this project we would love it,” said Dana Murdoch, Park Board project manager for the redo. “We had some wonderful ideas come out of our community meetings, and the design team used as many as we could, but there were other ideas we just couldn’t pursue because of the cost.”

Changes to conservatory

The most obvious change will be the conversion of the Cowles Conservatory from an enclosed, four-season hothouse into an open-sided pavilion.

Located on the west edge of the Sculpture Garden, it consists of two long, one-story greenhouses flanking a double-height glass cube designed to house Frank Gehry’s “Standing Glass Fish” sculpture, which appears to leap from a small lily pond. When the garden opened in 1988, the cube was lined with palm trees that thrived so well they soon pushed against the glass ceiling and had to be cut down and removed.

The cost of running the greenhouse in Minnesota’s often brutal winters has prompted its redesign. The frame, roof and upper walls will be left intact, but the bottom 10 feet of its glass walls will be cut away. The brick-paved floor will be replaced with smooth concrete to make the building more accessible to disabled visitors.

“One of the directives from the legislature was to reduce operating costs, and heating the conservatory over the winters is quite expensive,” said Murdoch. The unheated new space will be “more like a picnic pavilion, very open, with a glass canopy and ceiling.”

Gehry’s two-story-high sculpture will be placed in the Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota on a long-term loan. Whether it will ever return to the Walker’s campus is unclear without a dedicated site.

“It’s possible,” said Walker curator Siri Engberg. Gehry was consulted about the move and “was thrilled to have that sculpture united with the Weisman building,” she added.

Two other sculptures in the cube also will be removed: a neon sign by Mario Merz and miniature scenes installed in the floor by Sarah Sze.

Three garden sculptures — by Brower Hatcher, Mark di Suvero and Tony Cragg — will be loaned for a short time to Gold Medal Park near the Guthrie Theater. Earlier this summer Jacques Lipchitz’s bronze “Prometheus Strangling the Vulture II” was moved to the grounds of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as a long-term loan.

In addition to Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Von Bruggen’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” two sculptures will remain in the garden during construction: “X With Columns” by Sol LeWitt and “Five Plates, Two Poles” by Richard Serra.

Deciduous groves

All of the spruce trees that enclose the garden’s north end will go, along with most of the trees dotting the interior meadows. Many of the spruce are deformed or dying after 27 years and some were planted too close together .

Only the lindens that line Vineland Place on the garden’s south edge will remain, along with a small grove of hawthorns on the northwest edge at Dunwoody Blvd.

The 9 million visitors who have tromped through the garden since it opened in 1988 have also taken a toll on lawns and pathways. The groups that regularly queue up for photo ops by the “Spoonbridge and Cherry” have destroyed the grass there, compelling the park board to install a big, unsightly patch of wood chips.

The park board is considering options for managing the site, including special sod or even roping it off occasionally to allow the grass to recover.

Tree removal is another “delicate” topic that inspired passionate community comment.

”We’ve heard loud and clear the interest and concern for the trees in the garden, “ Murdoch said. Removal was dictated by the trees’ poor condition.

The new groves of deciduous trees will allow more visual access and seasonal texture — blossoms and fragrance in spring, deep shade in summer, colorful leaves in autumn. New shrubs, ornamental grasses, ground cover and perennial beds will further animate the landscape.

“This is a sculpture garden and it does need to be opened up so you can see the sculptures as you’re driving or biking by,” Murdoch said.

Originally a marsh, the garden site still collects standing water after heavy rains or in spring when snow melts from the hill on which the Walker sits. Reconstruction plans, designed by the Minneapolis firm Tom Oslund and associates, include three large slightly raised circles of “enhanced turf” that will hold sculpture at the garden’s north end. Around them, undulating areas of “fresh meadow” will be planted with grasses and perennials that can absorb excess moisture or let it percolate through to substrate.

Walker is also purchasing and commissioning — with private money — new sculptures to augment the old when they return and the garden reopens in 2017.

“We’re thinking of the garden renovation as another exhibition,” said curator Engberg. “It’s an opportunity to introduce a new narrative about the landscape and ecology with a different flow of art.”