George Edward Kessler. The man had such an effect on transportation in Indianapolis that his name is memorialized along a boulevard that stretches across Washington Township, and then ducks into Wayne Township. He was one of the foremost landscape architects in the United States. But some of what Kessler, at least in Indianapolis, is known for wasn’t his original idea. Kessler made it work…and made it real.
Kessler was born on 16 July 1862 in Frankenhausen, now in Thuringia, Germany. By the time he was three years old, his parents had moved to the United States. He and his family lived in New York and Dallas, Texas. He would go back to Europe to train at the Grand Ducal Gardens in Weimar in 1878. He then went on to further training at Charlottenburg Polytechnium and University of Jena.
His first work in the United States was in Kansas City, Missouri, where he designed the park and boulevard system for that city. In 1904, he worked on the layout for the grounds of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1910, that city became his home base and home town until he died.
Kessler came to Indianapolis in 1908, when he was hired by the Indianapolis Board of Park Commissioners as a landscape architect. His plan of creating parks throughout the city, and then connecting them with sweeping boulevards, was presented in 1909. Kessler would not be the one to recommend White River and Fall Creek Parkways, those predate his even coming to Indianapolis by over a decade. His plan was more inclusive than those prior. While earlier plans included White River and Fall Creek, he wanted to add Pleasant Run and Pogues Run to the boulevard system. Most of the park system would be linear parks, between boulevards on both sides of the stream.
The one exception is what would become Pleasant Run Parkway. That boulevard connected Garfield Park (more on that park later!) to Pleasant Run Golf Course via Margaret Christian Park and Jamison (now Ellenberger) Park. Some of this boulevard would be difficult to complete due to some railroads being in the way. Pleasant Run Parkway crosses under the Pennsylvania Railroad Louisville line at Garfield Park with that bridge being specifically built for that purpose. Crossing under the Indianapolis Belt Railroad north of Garfield Park also had overpasses built for both the north and south drives, although the construction of those bridges is very different on both sides of the creek. The crossing of the NYC and the second crossing of the Belt were bypassed by not building the parkway next to the creek. The last railroad underpass was actually built as a bridge over the creek, with the road crossing Pleasant Run as the PRR and B&O crosses over Pleasant Run, and the parkway.
Kessler did have some work on Indianapolis parks other than the boulevard system. Going back to Garfield Park, Kessler was responsible for adding the Sunken Gardens and the bridges that dot the landscape of the park. Anyone that has memories of “Ticklebelly Hill,” thank George Edward Kessler.
The Park Plan that included White River and Fall Creek started with the hiring, by the Commercial Club (now Chamber of Commerce), of landscape architect Joseph Earnshaw in 1884. Earnshaw’s plan to build winding boulevards along the two major waterways in the city, from Washington Street to the State Fairgrounds, was shot down almost immediately. The big factor was cost. Another factor was, quite understandably, that the entire city would have to pay taxes for the building of these parks, but the north side would have those parks. This caused some misgivings by those on the south and west sides. The essentially same plan was put forth by the firm Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot. Cities of 100,000 were allowed at this point to create a park department. That didn’t last long.
The parks and boulevards plan stagnated until 1907. The next year, Kessler was hired. Kessler took the plans that were brought up since 1894, expanded them with plans for Pleasant and Pogues Runs, and finally came up with a plan to only have people directly affected by the park system to pay for it by creating separate taxing districts.
From 1908 until 1915, the Parks Department retained Kessler and his firm. In that time, Kessler designed and worked on his plan. In addition, his firm was contracted for work on University Park (1915), Garfield Park (1915) and Riverside Park (1916). The last task brought to Kessler and his firm was a parkway on the north side of the city. Kessler recommended a parkway stretching from Fort Benjamin Harrison to Eagle Creek. What would be built would be a winding road along the Cooper Road corridor on the westside, east along the 56th and 59th Street corridors across Washington Township to west of Fort Harrison. This new boulevard was completed in 1929.
George Edward Kessler died 19 March 1923 at St. Vincent’s Hospital after surgery for kidney disease. The Indianapolis Star of 20 March 1923 states “he was engaged a few months ago by the board of park commissioners to develop along broad lines a comprehensive plan of boulevard construction and extension in this city. Plans for the first until of this program, the Fifty-sixth street boulevard from Fort Harrison to Big Eagle Creek, were announced only recently by the park board.” Indianapolis doctors were sent to St. Louis, were Mr. Kessler lived, to check on him as he was reported very sick. He arrived in Indianapolis on 12 March, and was put into the hospital almost immediately. When the new “56th Street boulevard” was completed six years later, it was named in Kessler’s honor.
Another of his last projects was to create a plan for Fairview Park. This job was contracted by the trustees of Butler University, since Fairview Park would be the future home of the college after it moved from Irvington.
George Kessler was not only instrumental in planning in Indianapolis, he had designed parks and boulevard systems for: Memphis, Tennessee; Cincinnati, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; El Paso, Texas; Syracuse, New York; Mexico City, Mexico; as well as numerous other cities. Not only did he create beautiful parks and parkways in Indianapolis, he was also instrumental in the “set back” rule of buildings on Monument Circle, meaning the higher the building, the further it sits back from the street. This is most obvious in the Circle Theater building.