Indianapolis Historic Park and Boulevard National Register Listing

National Register of Historic Places for the Indianapolis Park and Boulevard System

The Indianapolis Park and Boulevard System was largely created between 1908 and 1923 by its principal planner and landscape architect, George E. Kessler. The Indianapolis Commercial Club commissioned Kessler to prepare the plan, which merged beauty and function resulting in the first automobile-based transportation plan, flood control for the rivers and creeks, and designed and connected the city park system. The plan shaped the City of Indianapolis and laid the foundation for its future growth.

Strategies

As we studied the historic park and boulevard plan, we realized the visionary genius of George Kessler and how relevant his work was to contemporary planning and design work, including:

  • Healthy lifestyles: The Kessler parkways and boulevards were designed for two types of travel. The wide curvilinear, tree-lined driving lanes and separated, tree-lined pedestrian promenades. The experience of the route, including views to natural features, open, green spaces and groupings of trees and shrubs, rather than efficient and direct point-to-point travel is the character of the historic parkway.
  • Increased property values: Beauty is important. "Careful attention should be given to the park beauty, and sanitation to present the most attractive condition for the building of new homes."
  • Efficiency: “The result of a properly designed system of parks and parkways . . . is not only of practical benefit . . . but becomes an economic feature in that it encourages the use of otherwise waste spaces and consolidates the work of those departments devoted to street building, maintenance and sewering, etc."
  • Creative financing: Kessler divided the city into four quadrants as separate taxing districts to fund each quadrant’s parks, parkways, and boulevards. The north side of the city was much more aggressive in funding and building their section.
  • Social interaction: alternative transportation systems provide infrastructure that encourages social interaction.

In 1907 the Commercial Club of Indianapolis, the precursor to the Chamber of Commerce, knew their city needed to become more competitive. Many peer cities were following the tenets of the City Beautiful movement, which was exemplified during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. After a nation-wide search the club hired George Kessler, who became the City Landscape Architect for 16 years until his death in 1923. At that time the City Landscape Architect was responsible for both the park and street system, and they were managed together as one system. Indianapolis faces many of these same challenges and imperatives today.

Places

Kessler’s comprehensive city plan sought to regulate urban growth and improve the quality of life for its citizens. Focused on the old city limits of 38th / Emerson / Southern / and Tibbs, Kessler’s vision, as stated in his first report to the Park Board, was to establish a: “continuous park that is brought to the doors of all sections of the community. . ." Parkways followed the creeks, and boulevards were wide tree-lined right-of-ways that linked the parkways. Unique features included shade trees planted to separate the pedestrian from the vehicular driving lanes, uniform building setbacks, special street lighting, in-pavement tiles with street names in the sidewalks, and beautiful beaux-arts features like the bridges and other structures - creating the City as a Place.

Connections

The parkways became the basis for city growth within the old city limits by extending dedicated park space, flood control structures and pedestrian and vehicular circulation as an integrated system to form, as he stated in a park board report: “an attractive means of building up and tying together the otherwise isolated residence districts which have sprung up along the early lines of traffic.”

In today’s words, Kessler’s plan served the multiple purposes of transportation, recreation, flood control, conserving the natural environment and economic growth. His plan proposed that a world-class park system is the cornerstone of quality-of-life based economic development.

Project Summary

National Register of Historic Places for the Indianapolis Park and Boulevard System
SKA prime | Year completed: 2003
Client: City of Indianapolis

 
Grant
Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Award 
Indiana Chapter, American Society of Landscape Architects

Size
Over 3,400 acres, largest single nomination in Indiana. Nationally recognized listing.

Nomination includes 12 individual parks, 6 parkways, and 2 boulevards. Elements included scenic drives, greenspaces, road alignment and views, circulation systems, planting design, bridges and other structures. Many original park plans, bridges, parkway cross sections, flood control walls, and structure designs were found and documented for the nomination.

Testimonial (2003)

"Thanks to the National Register listing of the parks and boulevards of Indianapolis, the city's landscape architectural legacy will not only be revealed and interpreted, but there is now the foundation for intelligent preservation planning, heritage tourism, civic pride and increased real estate values for residents in years to come."

Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA
Coordinator, Historic Landscape Initiative
National Park Service, Preservation Initiatives
1849 C Street, NW, Washington, DC 20240

 

 

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