Upon her arrival in Indianapolis in 1837 Eunice Bullard Beecher, minister Henry Ward Beecher’s wife, noted that the town’s homes were not close together (by New England standards) but rather separated by wide backyards, with front lawns facing tree-lined streets. Although the availability of land made these spacious lawns possible, it was their aesthetic appeal that impressed Mrs. Beecher. 

Significantly, Beecher’s descriptions suggest that Indianapolis fit the ideals of the national “village improvement movement” of the 1850s, which sought to beautify towns with parks, parkways, and tree-lined drives. In turn, the movement probably motivated Indianapolis’ first “pleasure garden,” which John Hodgkins developed around 1850 at the corner of Tennessee and Georgia streets. Hodgkins planted the grounds with fruit trees and flower beds, built bowers for flowering vines, and placed seats in advantageous spots.

In 1864 Indianapolis made a noteworthy advance in beautifying the city when it purchased the land which became Crown Hill Cemetery. Frederick Chislett designed the area’s original layout of winding carriage paths; as one of only a few public green spaces, the cemetery quickly became the city’s most popular spot for picnicking.

The 1870s were a landmark decade in Indianapolis for landscape architecture, a newly coined term. In August 1872, Horace W. S. Cleveland, a landscape architect from Massachusetts, designed the eastside subdivision of Oakhill as a wealthy residential neighborhood with expansive lots and parks. But the Panic of 1873 prevented the sale of the large lots, which were subsequently subdivided into smaller, cheaper sites. In 1872-1873 James Woodruff platted Woodruff Place. Woodruff’s 77-acre residential park featured three drives centered with grassy esplanades and elaborate fountains and statuary. It was designed as a suburban haven for Indianapolis’ wealthy families, but nonresidents were also allowed Sunday excursions in the town.

In 1873 Jacob Julian and Sylvester Johnson platted the town of Irvington. This middle-class community introduced Indianapolis to the curvilinear streets and natural plantings that renowned landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux employed in 1869 in their planned community of Riverside, Illinois.

The 1870s also saw a brief focus on the purchase and improvement of public parklands. In 1873 Indianapolis purchased Southern Park (now Garfield Park), and the following year annexed the land in the neighborhood surrounding it. Also in the 1870s, John S. Spann led a movement that beautified University Park with walkways and a fountain surrounded by benches, and George Merritt donated time and money toward major improvements at Military Park, including trees and shrubs, walkways, and a central limestone fountain.

Toward the end of the 19th century, inspired by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Indianapolis and cities throughout the United States joined in the “City Beautiful” movement, which promoted municipal improvements, well-tended flower gardens, and landscaped parks as solutions to urban problems. Although the city government did not immediately act on the perceived need for green spaces, private groups did. Four years after the Columbian Exposition opened, William Tron introduced Fairbank Park, located on Illinois Street along Fall Creek (later the site of St. Vincent Hospital). Fairbank’s many colorful flower beds were planned by a Mr. Thorpe, designer of the plantings at the Chicago Exposition. The park featured rustic benches and overflowing planters, large trees, exotic plants, bicycle paths, and fountains. Its cafe was the city’s first “drive-in” where park visitors could stop for refreshments, including alcoholic beverages, ordered from and delivered to their carriages.

In 1892 the Commercial Club (later the Chamber Of Commerce) pressed for a City Beautiful-type plan which would promote “sidewalks smooth and even” in a city where “beautiful parks are everywhere.” Four years later the newly appointed Board of Park Commissioners hired John C. Olmsted, stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, to report on the city’s park and parkway needs. Inspired by Olmsted’s report, Mayor Thomas Taggart purchased hundreds of acres of parkland, including the land for Riverside Park.

By the beginning of the 20th century cities across America were constructing parks and boulevard systems. By 1903 Seattle, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago all had their own systems in place. After designing the Kansas City plan, landscape architect George E. Kessler came to Indianapolis in 1905 to design a parks and boulevard system. Calling for small and large parks connected by boulevards, the plan— true to City Beautiful ideas for solving urban problems—would also serve as a flood control system. Along Fall Creek, Kessler designed attractive bridges, wide streets, and walkways bordering the water. Kessler and Riverside boulevards were planned as broad, winding drives highlighting the natural beauty surrounding the city. These boulevards and parkways offered attractive clean air retreats from the smoke-filled downtown, enhanced the value of adjoining property, and swelled tax revenues. They also were a source of pride to citizens when Indianapolis’ system became a model for other cities.

Kessler came to epitomize landscape architecture in Indianapolis. Hired by the park board in 1908, he designed the sunken gardens at Garfield Park And Conservatory in 1915, as well as bridges for both Garfield and Brookside parks, and in 1917 he planned the Brendonwood subdivision’s spacious lots and winding drives. One of his plans which never saw fruition was a proposed public plaza along the White River. In the 1980s the city set aside this area for the White River State Park.

By 1910 city planners were shifting from a “City Beautiful” ideal to the “City Practical,” aiming more specifically at remedying urban congestion and planning for the benefit of large populations. In Indianapolis this movement was supported by the Commercial Club, in conjunction with the city government, in its 1914 “vacant lot cultivation” plans and its 1916 “clean-up, paint-up” campaign. Both aimed at creating a more livable city for everyone rather than beautifying specific areas used by only a few.

Beautification of public spaces also became a strong component of Indianapolis landscape design in this period. In 1919 University Square received a facelift when J. Sterling Calder’s Depew Fountain was placed at its center and sculptures of Schuyler Colfax, Benjamin Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln graced the outer perimeter. In the 1920s the Indiana World War Memorial Plaza was begun with its border of limestone buildings and Obelisk Square embellishing the memorial.

In the 1920s landscape design became an important component of private home planning. As the city’s wealthy entered the “country place era,” they hired famous landscape architects to prepare their estate grounds. The Hugh McKennan Landons employed the Olmsted Brothers firm in 1920 to develop the grounds at their Oldfields estate (now part of the Indianapolis Museum Of Art). Percival Gallagher, an associate at the firm created greenswards, fountains, and intimate areas utilizing massed plantings and statuary; much of his plan is still apparent today. In 1922 Jens Jensen landscaped the F. D. Stalnaker estate near Butler University with a cascading waterfall, reflecting pool, and a council ring for campfires (later this became his trademark). Frederic M. Ayres hired Lawrence Sheridan to design his estate, Walden, in a manner that retained its natural character with formal gardens extending into woods, a rock-rimmed pool, and a stone terrace.

The Great Depression ended the era of estate designing in Indianapolis. During the 1930s and 1940s landscape design shifted to playgrounds, “make-work” programs, and public buildings. Landscape design included projects such as the construction of new channels for Pleasant Run Creek and rock gardens for the slopes of Riverside Park, both funded by the Works Progress Administration, and the Public Works Administration’s Lockefield Gardens.

In the 1950s and 1960s, landscape architects were again active in city planning. Lawrence Sheridan was a member of the City Plan Commission, and in 1968 landscape architect Calvin S. Hamilton directed the Department Of Metropolitan Development planning agency which purchased Eagle Creek Park.

By the 1970s residential landscape design in Indianapolis was used most often on the grounds of apartment and condominium complexes. In public spaces, office parks became a popular arena for design. In 1971 the American States Insurance Company created Indianapolis’ first office minipark on the property next to its new seven-story office at Meridian and North streets. This park, with its small pool, water jets, and trees and benches, inspired other businesses to similar enhancements of work environments. In 1972 Browning Day Pollak and Mullins, Inc. (see Browning Day) designed the Lilly Industrial Center’s sweeping green spaces, winding drives, and plantings of canopy trees. In 1983 American United Life’s new headquarters featured an atrium with small fountains, a bridged pool of water, and plantings.

Indianapolis landscape design in the 1990s mirrors the national green movement. The work of local landscaping companies such as Engledow, Inc., is visible on every downtown street, with beds of bright annuals contributing variety to the scene. Urban green spaces like the Westin Plaza offered city workers and tourists cool fountains amidst perennial plantings and bowers of climbing roses.

This plaza was reduced in size in 2006 when the Simon Property Group constructed its new headquarters on the southern half. The former Westin Plaza was renamed Hudnut Commons. Even highway interchanges have been touched by the increasing interest in conservation and landscape design. In 1993 public-private cooperation created prairies at I-465 and North Meridian Street and a series of plantings and brick pavings at 21st Street and I-65. These prairies have since been removed. In 1994 plans were underway to complete Kessler’s original plans and to extend the park and boulevard system to all parts of the county. Upon completion, the Indianapolis Greenways Project will create a network of nature and fitness trails linking over 100 destinations along 14 rivers, streams, and abandoned railroad corridors.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields worked with Browning Day during its 2006 expansion. The firm’s design enabled the public to engage with the museum in a transformative way by incorporating the 100-acre Fairbanks Art and Nature Park, which was part of the 1999 plan that aimed to use the acreage west of the main museum and unifying art and nature. The 152 acre museum campus features The Garden with its 30 acres of contemporary and historic gardens, a working greenhouse, and an orchard. Several smaller garden spaces provide rooms for sculpture display, pools, fountains, arbors, lush plantings, and fruit trees.  The historic gardens have been restored to the original design of Percival Gallagher.   Nonie’s Garden, one of the contemporary landscapes serves as the focal point of the museum’s main entrance and the bridge Browning Day aimed for to unite art with nature. The expanding landscape allows for special programming at the IMA. The Summer Nights outdoor film series, Harvest Nights, and Winter Lights allow museum patrons to experience art and nature in unique ways at IMA. 

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail began construction in 2007 and opened in its entirety in 2009. This 8-mile trail connects Indianapolis’s six cultural districts from White River State Park to Mass Ave to Fountain Square. 

Revised July 2021

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