City parks blossomed from 1910s beautification movement

Foster Park
Foster Park
Samuel Foster sits on a bench in Lakeside Park in this postcard photo. He and his brother, David, donated land to create Foster Park in 1912.
By Carol Tannehill of The News-Sentinel

Whenever it's sunny -- and sometimes when it isn't -- south-siders can't resist the natural beauty and fresh air of Foster Park. Joggers, dog-walkers and bicyclists eagerly travel its asphalt paths. Amateur photographers focus on its flora and fauna. And squealing children take turns on its slides and swings.

We're not the first local generation to appreciate wide-open spaces, lush lawns and tall trees, however. Inspired by the City Beautiful movement that swept the country in the decades preceding World War I, Fort Wayne's civic leaders, forward-thinking designers and average citizens set out to beautify our little corner of the Midwest.

Like many cities during the 1910s, Fort Wayne experienced growing pains. Industry and trade were booming, which was good for the economy but not so good for the quality of life. Urbanization -- nearly a third of Indiana residents lived in cities by the turn of the century -- created its own set of problems: Long workdays in grim factories took their toll on the physical and mental health of knitters, iron smelters, piano makers and cigar rollers. Crime increased. And, by their sheer numbers, city dwellers put stress on the sewage and transportation systems.

The City Beautiful movement addressed those problems with new attitudes toward urban design. Advocates promoted attractive public structures, verdant parks and stately boulevards lined with trees and lampposts. The goal, the movement's proponents said, was not just prettier cities, but happier, more-involved citizens.

They believed "physical change . . . would persuade urban dwellers to become more imbued with civic patriotism and better disposed to community needs," William Wilson writes in his book, "The City Beautiful Movement" (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Fort Wayne residents seemed eager to give it a try. By 1910, Howell Rockhill, Robert Hanna and other members of the Commercial Club, a forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, had already begun gathering ideas. At the club's invitation, University of Chicago Professor Charles Zueblin presented a series of lectures on urban planning.

Rochester, N.Y., civic expert Charles Mulford Robinson -- one of the nation's most ardent City Beautiful proponents -- issued extensive improvement plans for Fort Wayne itself, and St. Louis landscape architect George Kessler did the same for its Rivergreenway, including the flood-prone area that would become Headwaters Park eight decades later.

In 1912, the beautification effort got a big boost from businessmen and philanthropists David and Samuel Foster. David Foster, the park board's first president, and his brother donated land along the St. Marys River -- about 67 acres just south of Bluffton Road -- to the city. Soon after, they added another 40 acres to the already sprawling Foster Park.

Lakeside Park, founded a couple of years earlier just off Lake Avenue, grew during the 1910s, thanks to land donated by the Forest Park Co. or purchased by the city. The city forked out nearly $17,500 -- big bucks in those days -- to install footbridges, plant the extensive (but not yet rose) gardens and create the sunken gardens with their signature white pergolas.

About the same time, numerous smaller oases sprouted throughout Fort Wayne, including Camp Allen, John H. Vesey, Pontiac Place and Hirons parks.

Engineers and architects also did their parts to beautify Fort Wayne. In 1912, local engineer Asa W. Grosvenor demonstrated the movement's vanguard ideals with the stately, yet sturdy, cement-over-metal bridge he designed for Tennessee Avenue. Hoosier historian James Cooper says the bridge is nationally recognized as a significant example of City Beautiful design. Grosvenor "successfully insisted on design that dressed a bridge's transportational usefulness in symbols of elevated civic purpose," Cooper writes in his book, "Artistry and Ingenuity in Artificial Stone."

Grosvenor also designed bridges at Coombs Street and Main Street.

By 1916, the City Beautiful movement had touched not only Fort Wayne's public lands and structures, but also its neighborhoods, lawns and homes. Husband-and-wife neighborhood planners Lee and Joel Ninde, who owned Wildwood Development Co., and real estate broker Louis F. Curdes promoted well-planned, functional and attractive residential areas.

In 1913, Curdes' Forest Park Co. bought Driving Park, a fairgrounds and horse track near Lakeside Park. He developed it into Forest Park, a grand neighborhood still revered for its venerable homes, large yards and grand esplanade.

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