News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 26, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: O.C. Simonds’ ideas launched Fairbanks Park

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Among the first serious efforts to beautify the landscape near the Wabash River in Terre Haute occurred early in the 20th Century.

It became know as the Riverside Park movement.

On April 2, 1906, a women’s organization called the Civic League urged men’s organizations to form auxiliary boards.

Several men’s organizations responded promptly. The Young Business Men’s Club, The Commercial Club, The Manufacturer’s Club The Retail Merchants Association, the Vigo County Medical Society and the Maple Avenue Church Club provided 21 men to serve.

The committee scheduled an appointment with Terre Haute Mayor Edward J. Bidaman’s Civic League committee but the committee made it clear that neither Bidaman nor his committee wanted a riverside park.

When James Lyons took office, succeeding Bidaman, the committee decided to try again. On Oct. 9, 1906, 17 men and women met with the new Board of Public Works in City Hall, then located at Fourth and Walnut streets. They were cordially received.

The discussion was enthusiastic. Spencer F. Ball, co-publisher of the Terre Haute Gazette whose bequest eventually resulted in the formation of Spencer F. Ball Park, assumed a leadership role.

In his first address on the topic, Ball said that the proposed Riverside Park — located on the eastern bank of the river between Cherry and Poplar streets — is “a squalid and badly kept locality. Beauty is needed where beauty is least in evidence.”

He added: “The river has been so neglected and abused that it is an eye sore. Its banks are a dumping ground.”

Ball suggested that the property between Wabash and Poplar could be purchased for about $25,000. Public sentiment rapidly was swayed in favor of the park.

Willard Kidder had a flour mill on one tract and George W. Fares owned lots once occupied by the Magnetic Mineral Springs Artesian Well Bath House.

In Feb. 11, 1907, Ball announced that esteemed landscape architect Ossian Cole Simonds of Chicago would spend two days in Terre Haute to survey the city. Simonds arrived three days later and spent the first day inspecting the land south of the bridge.

Simonds thought the site was ideal and could be converted into a park for $5,000.

Simonds had worked for esteemed architect William Le Baron Jenney for several years and, in that capacity, was assigned to implement Jenney's plans for a 35-acre expansion of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.

The Graceland project became the most influential in Simonds’ career. It caused him to seriously study landscape gardening, “the least understood or appreciated discipline of the fine arts.”

He was largely influenced by the written works of A.J. Downing, Frederick Law Olmsted and the work of other landscape gardeners, particularly Adolph Strauch, superintendent of Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

Simonds’ work at Graceland earned him a national reputation as the “Dean of Cemetery Design.” Meanwhile, he designed at least eight parks for the Boulevard and Park Association of Quincy, Ill., most notably Indian Mounds Park.

He also was an active member of several organizations devoted to beautifying urban open spaces and one of the 11 founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

In 1903, he formed O.C. Simonds & Company. During the same year, he was appointed landscape gardener of Chicago’s Lincoln Park.         

On his second day in Terre Haute, Simonds was taken to the bluffs across the river from the Fort Harrison site and the tow path to Lost Creek and Forest Park. A week later, Simonds provided a written report covering making specific recommendations.

On March 25, 1907, the Riverside Park committee presented proposals from Kidder and Fares. Kidder offered 100 feet on the south side of Wabash Ave. from Kidder’s Mill to the river, 100 feet on Water St. and 200 feet of Ohio St. for $25,000.

Former congressman Fares offered the entire block between Poplar and Walnut streets, including the artesian well, for $15,000.

Two landowners — The Nelson Morris Co. and Charles Holbert — were not present and did not submit a request.

The Committee of Parks and Cemeteries, consisting of Edward B. Cowan, Henry Neukom and Ignatius F. Mehegan, rejected the offers as being too high.

Both Fares and Kidder were civic-minded. Fares publicly declared that he would not permit any property owner along the riverfront to outstrip him in making a concession that would assure the park for the city.

A representative of Nelson Morris Co. came to Terre Haute on May 9, 1907 but declared he was not in a position to provide a definite price until he conferred with company officials.

Holbert valued his 37 feet on Ohio St., with frame dwelling, at $1,500.

Using landscape design plans provided by O.C. Simonds, Riverside Park was launched.

Yet it was not until Crawford, Edward and Helen Fairbanks gave well over 100 acres of land to the city in 1916 in memory of their father, former mayor Henry Fairbanks, that the park now known as Fairbanks Park was fully realized.