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KEVIN LEININGER: ‘Driving Park’ deserves to be remembered, and historic status would help

In the late 1800s this stretch of West Drive was part of the city's horse track. The neighborhood's history could soon be preserved on the National Register of Historic Places. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
The Fort Wayne Driving Park was located just north of present-day Forest Park Boulevard. In thid 1898 map, present-day State Boulevard is to the south. The "St. Joe Gravel Road to the west is now Crescent Avenue. The loop south of the track was a street-car line leading to the grandstand. (Courtesy image)
Kevin Leininger

Today, when Fort Wayne residents want to wager on the ponies, legal off-track betting is as close as New Haven. A little more than a century ago, however, it was even closer — in the namesake of what could be the next Fort Wayne neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

If the Driving Park-Seven States Historic District just east of downtown is a mouthful phonetically, it’s equally impressive geographically, encompassing two dozen blocks and nearly 500 buildings city officials consider historically significant. But what really sets the area apart is the colorful history implied by the first part its name.

There was driving even before there were automobiles, and during the Gilded Age Fort Wayne offered no better place to go for a spin — behind a horse, of course — than the Fort Wayne Trotting Association’s half-mile oval that for a relatively brief moment in time was a Fort Wayne focal point north of what is now Forest Park Boulevard.

Frederick and Eliza Hayden sold a portion of their farm to the association in the mid-1890s, laying the groundwork for creation of an attraction that until its demise in 1913 catered to people of every social class. According to a 2013 History Center account, “Throughout the ‘Gay ’90s’ Driving Park was a popular gathering spot for the society-conscious and those with a fondness for wagering.” The park also hosted some of the city’s centennial events in 1895 — which were a year late because civic leaders overlooked the actual anniversary.

Then, in 1902, the Trotting Association passed control of the grounds to the Fort Wayne Fair Association. That year’s inaugural city fair drew 10,000 spectators, many of whom wagered on the horse races that in October were joined by something new: the city’s first auto race, which attracted more than 16,000 people. And that wasn’t the last time new technology drew a crowd to the Driving Park: Famed local aviator Art Smith, for whom Smith Field is named, attempted his first flight there but crashed, spending the next month recovering in bed.

By 1913, however, the Fair Association was in debt. So the group did what owners of some struggling golf course owners are doing today: They sold the land to a housing developer by the name of Louis F. Curdes, who had previously built Forest Park Boulevard. Within days of the conclusion of the final fair, crews were tearing down the stables and grandstands and grading streets in the northern part of the property to create the “Driving Park Addition.” The rest of the property was replatted, with the streets named for — you guessed it — seven states.

The proposed historic district is bounded roughly by Vermont Avenue on the south, State Boulevard on the north, Florida Drive and East Drive. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing on its nomination to the National Register March 23 at 5:30 p.m. in the Omni Room of Citizens Square, 200 E. Berry St.

As I noted in January when the Harrison Hill neighborhood was nominated to the register, nearly 200 districts and individual structures in Fort Wayne have been designated “historic” by one level of government or another. But unlike properties in local historic districts, inclusion on the federal register does not limit what owners can do with their homes.

And next to its unique history, the homes in the neighborhood may be its most significant feature, according to the city’s application. The area is an example of “fine architectural styles popular in the 1910s-1920s. Though only a few are of exceptional scale, the high number of modest, well-preserved middle-class houses is the district’s defining character.” In addition to homes of Colonial Revival, Craftsman/Bungalow, American Four Square and other styles, the neighborhood is home to two other significant structures: Forest Park Methodist Church (1937) and Forest Park School (1925/1927), designed by prominent local architect Guy Mahurin.

Interestingly, the main event on the Driving Park’s final day of life was an appearance by Bob Burman, winner of the 1913 Indy 500, who staged a race between a car, motorcycle and horse-drawn chariot. The History Center account does not name the victor, which is just as well. Ambiguity is always interesting.

But there’s nothing ambiguous about this: Fort Wayne is blessed with many beautiful and historic neighborhoods, but few can match the story of the horse-drawn driving park which, in the History Center’s words, fast became “a foggy memory in the bustling, growing, successful city of Fort Wayne.” It’s a memory worth preserving.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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