Indiana Landmarks recently recognized one of Indianapolis’ most hidden treasures, the Jens Jensen-designed garden at Marian University.
Technically known as Riverdale, the landscape surrounds Allison Mansion along Cold Spring Road between 30th and 38th streets. Behind the mansion, which serves as administrative offices for the university, is what’s now called the St. Francis Colonnade.
Its resurrection from dirt and dilapidation earned it Indiana Landmarks 2019 Central Indiana Preservation Outstanding Restoration Award.
“We did like the fact that it was a culturally significant landscape designed by Jens Jensen. There aren’t that many around,” said Mark Dollase, vice president of preservation services at Indiana Landmarks. It was a tremendous effort and investment, Dollase said. The project was nominated by Chad Lethig, a preservation coordinator at Landmarks’ and a member of its Historic Landscapes Committee.
One of few Jensen landscapes
Riverdale is one of two Jensen-designed landscapes in Indianapolis. There are only about 10 Jensen gardens remaining in the country. Known for his work with the Chicago public parks and automotive moguls, Jensen (1860-1951) was a naturalistic landscape architect. Jensen’s Riverdale design called for many native plants, including sumac, a familiar plant, especially in fall with its brilliant red-orange leaves, along Indiana’s highways.
This is the first time anyone alive will see the garden as Jensen intended, said Barth Hendrickson, a landscape architect and principal at Browning Day Mullins and Dierdorf, who oversaw the decade-long project. Jensen designed the landscape in 1911 and it was installed over several years. His original drawings guided Hendrickson and the landscape restoration.
The property was purchased by the Sisters of St. Francis, and Marian was established in 1937. Over the years, the landscape fell into disrepair, including a crumbling colonnade. The Friends of Riverdale has raised $1.4 million of a $2 million goal, said Patricia Curran president of the group, which allowed the project to move forward.
Students have begun to explore the area and soon programs will be held here, said Deb Lawrence, general counsel and vice president of administration at Marian. “We hope university students will feel they have a wonderful place to sit and study.”
Plantings are still being planted and grass seed being sown. It will probably take a couple of years before the landscape has enough maturity to be fully appreciated. Meantime, it’s a young garden, but the garden is open to the public. You can walk the area, stroll the colonnade and enjoy the overlook to the Eco Lab, another part of the Jensen design.