Several of Fort Wayne's older neighborhoods are still graced by the work of some of the most prominent American landscape architects of the early 20th century. But with one of those legacies on a national “endangered” list and another targeted by a major road project questioned by 15 neighborhood leaders representing more than 11,500 households, some fear time may at last be running out.
Whether that fear is justified, however, is not entirely clear.
When the Cultural Landscape Foundation released its 2012 list of 12 threatened sites, a beautiful but underappreciated area just west of downtown was prominently displayed. According to the report Thieme Drive is endangered by flood-control efforts and lack of riverbank maintenance, risking “the only river boulevard system in (Fort Wayne's) historic boulevard system.”
Named for local businessman Theodore Thieme, owner of the Wayne Knitting Mills, the drive and small Park at Main and Rockhill streets were designed in 1912 by George Kessler, a “city beautiful” proponent already nationally known for work in Indianapolis and other cities. The drive and park were among the earliest components of the network of boulevards and parks Kessler envisioned here.
Highlighted by an ornate “overlook” near the Main Street Bridge over the St. Mary's River, Thieme Drive stretches from Main past the girlhood home of actress Carole Lombard to West Jefferson past the historic homes of the historic West Central Neighborhood.
After the flood of 1982, however, the Army Corps of engineers built a series of walls on the other side of the river – which the report links to the fact that Thieme Drive has flooded seven times in nine years. Historically sensitive proposals to protect and beautify the Thieme Drive side were developed but never funded, the report notes, “(and) the river's edge has been allowed to deteriorate into a mass of tangled brush, weeds and unwanted scrub trees.”
Spokesman Frank Suarez, however, said the city has worked closely with the neighborhood to control flooding, has made repairs to stabilize and last year cleaned the area before the neighborhood opened its 100-year time capsule. Other improvements are planned if money can be found, he added.
A far more prominent street north of downtown is also threatened, supporters insist – but hardly from neglect.
In the planning stages for more than three years, city officials don't expect to award bids to widen and reroute State Boulevard between Wells Street and Spy Run – removing the pronounced “curve” in the process – until 2014. City officials insist the $11 million project will address flooding and promote safety, but opponents say it will needlessly disrupt an historic neighborhood that has been eroded enough already.
In a letter published recently in The News-Sentinel, Brookview Neighborhood President Michelle Briggs Wedaman and leaders from 14 other neighborhoods accused the city of keeping residents in the dark in order to push through an unnecessary project that will create blight and harm property values by turning an intentionally curvy street into a potential truck route.
Designed in 1917 by Arthur Shurcliff, whose projects included the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, the streets in the Brookview neighborhood were intended to be scenic, not merely practical – hence the curves that, by slowing traffic, allow time to enjoy the view.
Wedaman and City Councilman John Shoaff, D-at large, agree changes are needed, but say the city's design risks turning State into a prominent east-west thoroughfare. Even if State isn't an “official” truck route, “that would be hard to enforce,” Shoaff said. Several homes in the area have already been torn down because of flooding from the Spy Run Creek, and the widening project will claim about 12 more. Eminent domain will not be used, meaning homeowners would have to sell voluntarily.
City officials, however, contend they have held numerous meetings with residents and that some have received bad information from opponents.
For one thing, they say, federal officials require the aging bridge over Spy Run Creek to be elevated by about 7 feet because of flooding – a project similar to one recently completed on Clinton Street. That and safety concerns require realignment of the street, although the original “historic” section will remain.
What's more, the “new” street will be designed with narrow lanes, lots of greenery, ornamental monuments and other features that will not only beautify the area but slow traffic, making the route unattractive to trucks.
Of the two features, Brookview is obviously the most imminently affected and you can't blame Wedeman and others for worrying about what might be lost as well as what might be gained. And the Cultural Landscape Foundation is right to call attention to Thieme Drive before it really is directly threatened.
Preservationists shouldn't stop all progress, but they should say: Think carefully before you act or fail to act, because once something historic is gone, it's gone forever. That's happening here in both cases – and it's a good thing.