In 1895, Indianapolis was a rapidly growing city, and wanted to be an attractive one, too. Mayor Thomas Taggart had just established a parks system, and famed landscape architect George Kessler was hired to create a grand vision for the city’s aesthetics—most notably, its parks and parkways.
The literal hotbed of all these beautification efforts? Indy’s oldest public greenspace, Garfield Park, which had opened as Southern Park in 1876. More than 200,000 plants were grown in the onsite greenhouses each year, including 100-plus varieties of bushes and flowers. A small brigade of florists and helpers would gather at the park to pick up the lush flowers and greenery, and then transplant them to public planters and esplanades, from Spades, St. Clair, and Indianola parks to street centers on Emerson and Fletcher avenues. The buds were laid out in patterns like stars, shields, Maltese crosses, the American flag, and other geometric combinations throughout the metropolis.
The buds were laid out in patterns like stars, shields, Maltese crosses, the American flag, and other geometric combinations throughout the metropolis.
Today, the conservatory facing the Sunken Gardens—which were installed along with the fountains in 1916—features a rainforest theme with a consistent year-round display. But the greenhouse featured here (razed in 1955) was a working one that helped provide floral adornments. When built, it was intentionally situated on a higher section of ground in anticipation of adding a terrace and the stately gardens that would eventually become the park’s most famous feature.
While that planting tradition has long since ceased, Garfield Park remains one of the most unique in the city. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Sunken Gardens this year, the southside park features a variety of diversions—from bridges and streams to athletic facilities, amphitheater shows, memorials, and monuments—and still ranks highly as a destination for visitors and residents. Some planners hope the park may eventually connect to the Cultural Trail, a fitting tribute to its life of 100-plus years ago, when bicycle paths to and through the space enhanced a visit there.
Tiffany Benedict Browne runs historicindianapolis.com. She thinks Garfield Park is one of Indy’s top 10 treasures.