The George Kessler Maps of Indy Parks

The next post for this blog was supposed to be about the 1913 Indianapolis streetcar strike. However, that topic has turned into the largest rabbit hole, and it is going to require additional research, especially into the post-strike labor negotiations, and may possibly be two parts. Instead, I wanted to highlight a few Indy Parks related items that I have run across over the past few years researching various park related topics. The previous post about the suspension bridges of Riverside Park helped bolster the content for this post, which will look at the park designs developed for various Indy Parks by George Kessler.


Kessler was a landscape architect, trained in Germany, who was very active in the design of parks and other projects throughout the Midwest, and the eastern and southern United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mostly based out of Kansas City and later St. Louis, he developed detailed park plans for Kansas City, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, among others.


Kessler’s relationship with Indianapolis began in 1907, when he was retained to design new plans for the city’s park and boulevard system. This system had been begun in the late 1890’s, and several boulevards had been built along with parks, and Kessler would work to expand this system. He continued in this effort in various capacities for the next 15 years, up until his death in the city on March 20, 1923, while overseeing the construction of a boulevard which was later named for him.


While working for Indianapolis, his firm produced detailed renderings of several parks in Indianapolis. The overall plan for parks and boulevards can be seen on the map below, contained in the 1909 Report of Board of Park Commissioners. This map was updated several times over the years to reflect the progress on the various projects. As seen in the map below, green areas are areas where the park and boulevard system had been implemented, while yellow shows proposed additions.

Credit: Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1909, Digitalindy.com

One of the more prominent maps is for Riverside Park, which was featured in the previous suspension bridge post, and is available online with the Indiana State Library’s map collection:

Riverside Park history Indianapolis George Kessler
Indiana State Library Map Collection (1913)

This map is dated 1913, and shows the complex series of roadways, paths, greenspace, and waterways and lagoons throughout the park. Of note, this map does not show the existence of the bear pit, although it was active at the time this map was drafted. The park as it appears today is below. North is to the right.


Some of the roadways and golf courses still survive, although many of the features have since disappeared. Most notable are the series of lagoons, although remnants still remain. A series of long, narrow ponds, and shallow depressions on the west side of the river are part of that lagoon system and have since been incorporated into the Coffin Golf Course. Likewise, on the east bank, near the southern end of the park, a larger pond, and a marshy area next to that, is the remnant a part of the lagoon system now on the property of the South Grove Golf Course.


The next map is for the proposed Merritt Playground, which was prepared in 1911-12. The playground was to be a component of the White River Boulevard system and would be named for George Merritt, a former member of the Boards of Park and School Commissioners. Merritt had been an advocate for the construction of playgrounds for children and was also known as "mayor of Military Park" for his efforts to develop that area. The plan was to establish a park area with baseball diamonds, a quarter mile track, and tennis courts, just south of the new(ish) confluence of the Fall Creek and White River

Indianapolis parks history Merritt Park
Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1912, Digitalindy.com

However, the plan appears to have never advanced past the planning stage. While the boulevards were built, (and a few modern trails) the athletic and park facilities were not constructed. Today, the site for Merritt Playground is occupied by the Roudebush Veterans Administration Hospital, and the White River Trail Greenway. Note, north is to the left in the map and image.

Rhodius Park on the west side of downtown was opened in 1915, and the land used for the park had been purchased in 1914 using funds from George Rhodius, a wealthy citizen of Indianapolis, who bequeathed $200,000 to the city for use for park purposes. While the park was opened in 1915, it was also the subject to the Kessler treatment, with a detailed plan for the park appearing in the 1919 report of the Board of Park Commissioners. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the plan is the large, curved lake forming the centerpiece of the park.

Rhodius Park Indianapolis history kessler park
Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1919, Digitalindy.com

The swimming pool contemplated by Kessler's design, being an extension of the lagoon at the center of the park, was initially part of the overall plan for the park, although it was later modified to be its own independent structure. The plans below are from the Indianapolis Dept. of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings collection at the Ball State Digital Media Repository. The blueprint was prepared in 1922 and shows the swimming pool as part of the lagoon, while the second plan, from around 1923, shows a separated pool, with the outline of the lagoon still in place.


Rhodius has remained roughly the same size as its plan, although Interstate 70 has taken a small piece out of the northwest corner. The park still hosts playgrounds, baseball fields, tennis courts, and a large pool. A public school has also been built on the property, but the lake which figured prominently in Kessler's. plan, is not present today. However, the kidney bean shaped depression marking the site of the lake is still clearly visible in the park as shown in the satellite and LiDAR images below.


Park Board minutes from 1913 make several references to the contracts for the excavation of the lake, and clearly some excavation was done, although no images of the lake have been located. There are several photos available of the original pool constructed at the park, which can be viewed here.


In 1914 Kessler drafted plans for the already existing University Park, located near the heart of downtown, in the block bounded by Vermont to the north, New York to the south, and Pennsylvania and Meridian to the east and west, respectively. University Park had been set aside by the state for an actual institution of higher education, although one was never built. Kessler’s plan is centered around the Depew Fountain, a proposed fountain funded by the bequest of Emma Depew, who died in 1913, in memory of her husband Dr. Johnson Depew.

university park history Indianapolis George Kessler
Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1914, Digitalindy.com

The rendering above is difficult to read due to small text. The original image can be viewed here. The park today appears very similar to Kessler’s plan, and the walkways are still in place, as is the Depew Fountain at its center, and the Benjamin Harrison statue on the southern edge of the park. The Schuyler Colfax monument on the northern edge of the parkin the Kessler plan is no longer in place, but is instead on eastside of the fountain, along an east-west walkway which was also not included in the Kessler plan.


There was also a detailed plan developed by Kessler for Willard Park, on east Washington Street. While the map is included in this slideshow developed in 2004 for Indy Parks about the boulevard and park system, I have not been able to find the original map in any available source. The annual report which included this map, I believe 1913, is not included in the digitized materials maintained in the Digital Indy archive at the Indianapolis Library. Other copies of this report contained at other institutions did not include a full scan of the Willard Park plan. Without an original source for the map, it will not be included in this post. Instead, we'll move on to the final map: Garfield Park.

Garfield Park Indianapolis History Kessler Map
Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1919, Digitalindy.com

Garfield Park was the first "city" park in Indianapolis. While there are other parks in downtown which predated Garfield, namely Military and University, those properties were state property. Garfield Park was opened in 1876 as South Park, at the confluence of Bean and Pleasant Run Creeks, and was renamed after President Garfield following his assassination in 1881. The appearance of Garfield Park today is very close to the Kessler map, which was included in the 1919 Report of the Board of Park Commissioners. Many of the main roadways and intersections are still in place, and the greenhouses and Sunken Gardens, which were designed by Kessler in 1916, are still present on the east side of the park.

One feature which has disappeared from the landscape of Garfield Park today, is the lake formed by damming Pleasant Run and Bean Creek on the northern edge of the park. Clearly visible on the Kessler map, today there is little evidence of the lake, although numerous images of the lake, and its use by park patrons, can be found in various archival collections. The image below is looking east toward the lake, called Pleasant Lake, in 1896, and appears to show a dam under the bridge for Pagoda Drive, just south of the intersection with Pleasant Run Parkway North.

Garfield Park Lake Indianapolis History
Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1896, Digitalindy.com

Keep an eye out for a future post about the Streetcar Strike of 1913, once that is finally finished, in addition to additional posts related to the history of Indy Park properties.



Sources


Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1912 - Indy Parks and Recreation - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/35439/rec/6


Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1911 - Indy Parks and Recreation - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/99276/rec/12


Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1919 - Indy Parks and Recreation - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/131983/rec/17


Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1896 - Indy Parks and Recreation - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/35016/rec/17


Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1914 - Indy Parks and Recreation - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/122442/rec/11


Report of the Board of Park Commissioners for 1909 - Indy Parks and Recreation - The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections,

https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/35120/rec/8


Indianapolis New: March 11, 1913


Indianapolis Star: January 16, 1915, June 10, 1916


Rhodius Park Blueprints, Indianapolis Dept. of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings, Ball State University Digital Media Repository, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/IndplsPDArc/id/4913/rec/259


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