After nearly a century of neglect, more than a decade of fundraising and a year of rebuilding, a culturally significant landscape in Indianapolis is about to have a renaissance.
The landscape is Riverdale and it surrounds Allison Mansion on the campus of Marian University on Cold Spring Road. James A. Allison, one of the co-founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, hired Jens Jensen (1860-1951) to design Riverdale in 1911. A tall Dane with red hair, Jensen was well known for his work with the Chicago park system, including its Garfield Park and Conservatory, and residential landscapes, primarily in the Midwest.
He came to Allison’s attention because of his work with Henry Ford and his son Edsel’s properties in Michigan and Maine. Jensen embraced a naturalistic planting design, mimicking what he saw in nature. Just like a path through the woods, Jensen’s landscapes had curves that revealed surprising scenes as you rounded corners.
At Marian, Jensen’s showpiece was a colonnade made of 24 dolomite and limestone pillars in the formal garden. The pillars supported an Arts and Crafts-style cedar arbor, laced with wisteria. Remnants of the colonnade have been on the edge of a bluff, overlooking what’s now Marian’s EcoLab, all part of the original Jensen plan. Riverdale and Allison Mansion are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Jensen landscape is one of about 10 that remains.
The colonnade’s pillars were disassembled rock by rock, with each piece marked and mapped as it was loaded onto a wooden pallet waiting the rebuilding. Limestone bases were built for the pillars and the concrete pad at the edge of the bluff has reinforced. The cedar arbor is long gone and is being replaced with repurposed fir, possibly from an old barn, found through an Indiana source. Bricks will cover the walkway.
Now called the St. Francis Colonnade, the university and Friends of Riverdale have commitments for $1.1 million of its $2 million goal for the restoration and ongoing maintenance of Jensen’s landscape, said Deb Lawrence, vice president for administration and general counsel at Marian.
Guided by Jensen’s original drawings
Hunched over a design based on Jensen’s originals, Barth Hendrickson points out sections he thinks may never have been planted because there are no traces of the trees and shrubs specified in the 1911 plan. Hendrickson, a landscape architect with Brown Day Mullins Dierdorf, has been involved with the restoration project for several years.
At Riverdale, Jensen created a series of rooms or three specific spaces that define the landscape: A grassy area called Player’s Green, where small performances of music and theatre were held; a fountain surrounded by a rose garden; and the formal garden. When digging for the renovation, the crews unearthed a fire pit, which many think may have been one of Jensen’s famous council rings. Jensen installed these rings as a place for people to gather for conversations and enjoying nature.
“I think an interesting nuance for this one is what is taken into consideration on a 1910 residential landscape that is now in a university setting. Safety, visibility and accessibility are key attributes of the design,” Hendrickson said. “Marian University needs to be recognized for its care for this garden and its original designer in Jensen. I believe it’ll be a national treasure, certainly it’s tied to notable characters.”
The formal garden should be complete by Spring 2019. Meantime, the public is invited for a free preview, 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 at Allison Mansion-Riverdale, 3200 Cold Spring Road. Free tours of EcoLab, which is part of Riverdale, will be at 10 and 11 a.m.