The Riverdale Garden: Jens Jensen’s and the Sisters of Oldenburg Influence on Marian University’s Restored Landscape of Art

Love of nature and the created order.

I first became aware of Riverdale 12 years ago in 2006, when Vice President of Administration, Deb Lawrence, noticed that I had listed Jens Jensen’s small book “Siftings” as one of my favorite books in an Indianapolis Business Journal article.  And so, she sent me a written note to seek my interest in the “befriending” the “Friends of Riverdale.” How could I say no?  How do you turn down Deb Lawrence?!

When one considers a cultural landscape designed in 1910 to befriend – one designed by an internationally recognized landscape architect such as Jens Jensen, a built work such as Riverdale and its gardens, the history of the Allisons, the Sisters of Saint Francis, and Marian University – why would anyone not say “Yes!”

And so, on a journey with Jensen, befriending this garden, the University, and the Sisters of Oldenburg and St. Francis we embarked. The result of this 12-year relationship will be an amazing asset for the university, the City of Indianapolis, and landscape and architectural historians from afar.

Jensen’s Design Philosophy and Importance                                      

  • Jensen’s vision and design philosophy were influenced by his farm upbringing and later the mid-western prairie.
  • Jensen was one of the founders of the “prairie school” of landscape architecture. This type of design emphasized and accentuated the repeated horizontal lines of the prairie landscape. He worked with his contemporaries – most notably Frank Lloyd Wright. His career spanned both the 19th to mid-20th centuries.
  • He was drawn to the broad horizons of the Near-Chicago prairie landscape and sought to celebrate distant views wherever he could.
  • Jensen strongly believed that nature had many lessons to teach us and if we were to only copy natural landscape families, their placement in the landscape: the lone Oak, the family of sumac, the birch by water, the grassy field, for example, we would be stewarding the created order as intended.
  • Jensen’s philosophical belief in the humanizing power of gardens and parks and his commitment to working closely with indigenous plants and ecological processes of the Midwest’s prairie landscape continue to be discussed today in national circles of conservationists and landscape architects.
  • Incorporating such features as wetland gardens known as “prairie-rivers” and council rings as places for gathering and performance, can be seen in most all of his designs. Elements of those features can be seen here at Riverdale.
  • Jensen created parks throughout the Midwest as well as numerous residential estate gardens, including several estates for the Ford and Dodge families, often in collaboration with Prairie School architects.
  • I happen to believe it was this relationship with the Auto-barons and the automobile manufacturing and testing here in Indianapolis that led to the relationship with James Allison that resulted in this landscape and garden before us today.
  • As a visionary, Jensen’s contributions to the evolution of a distinctly American landscape style is unparalleled and recognized certainly in the United States and ever-growing throughout the modern world.

How Jensen’s vision fits Marian’s mission and values

  • Jensen’s plan for Riverdale fits Marian’s mission and values in several ways:
  • For Jensen, there was an obvious continuum between design and conservation. Through his designs, he sought to awaken the public to the beauty and cycles of nature; so does Marian University.
  • As an educator, Jensen developed a holistic curriculum of ecology, horticulture, philosophy, and the arts for his “school of the soil, “The Clearing,” in Ellison Bay, Wis.
    • The important mission that Marian University continues today in the Eco-Lab continues what he wanted his legacy to be.
    • Planned programmatic uses of the garden terraces will enliven the garden as Jensen originally intended.
    • Additional programming will enhance the original intent including uses for worship, celebrations, guest entertainment, etc.
  • The Clearing was a place that exposed students to the importance of good character. Knowing what you believe, and why, and how to carry this belief out into the world and impact it for good.
  • Jensen’s vision for what he did extended beyond the practical landscape. Jensen is quoted saying:

“We have no right to consider ourselves civilized as long as we permit less fortunate residents of our city to live and multiply in unhealthy surroundings that are devoid of beauty and that are a peril to the whole population and a menace to the normal development of our civilization.”

  • This, too, is a mission for Marian University – to give opportunities to students who would not otherwise have it.

The importance of the Riverdale garden as a historic landscape and contemplative space

  • And so, this is another tie to Marian University’s mission and values that leads us to believe that this landscape at Riverdale is important to preserve for this and future generations of students, faculty and staff as a contemplative space to restore one’s self from the stresses of everyday life, a place to celebrate accomplishment, remember those that have impacted our lives for good and, if we’ve done our job thoroughly, perhaps have others contemplate the impact for good they can have on the world.

The Saint Francis Garden – A Sisters of Oldenburg Addition

  • It has been written that Saint Francis would often look to the fields and woodlands his father owned outside of town to invigorate him, but at one point, we know that Saint Francis became disillusioned – wondering how he had become so attached to the things of the world. This seed of thought led Saint Francis to shed himself of worldly possessions and tend to the poor and needy.  He found inspiration through the natural created order.
    • It is the created order of the Riverdale garden landscape that can provide the same for those who seek respite here; here in a restored garden.

Brief overview of the restoration plan

  • Many of Jensen’s design philosophies “design moves if you will” can be found right here in the Riverdale Gardens.
  • The “long view” from the aviary to the “Player’s Green” cuts across three distinct rooms and also employs a cross axis from the Pergola to the Lilly Pond.
  • The fountain is fully rebuilt to its original size of 20’ diameter and has a large bowl in the center; a new pump and filter system has been installed. Crushed stone walks, and plant beds radiate from the center and benches allow rest and visual enjoyment.
  • The restored stone and wood pergola is meant to be a contemplative perch to view across the lowland ponds and prairie landscape. Today’s view is the area known as the Nina Mason Pulliam Eco-Lab.
  • Various layers and scales of plants create rooms that can be used as a progression to entertainment. The lawn next to the aviary is a pre-function space, the next level is for strolling, and the last was set for theater. We have no historic pictures of the fully planted garden, so it is believed to be the first time it will be fully planted as intended when complete.
  • The functional nature of the space sets up for large or small crowds. Modern infrastructure allows for a stage set with electrical connectivity, a full irrigation system, state of the art fountain, and subtle night lighting.
  • A matrix planting of perennial gardens, natural understory plant massing, winter interest, and a focus of light’s effect upon sunrise and sunset is all revealed at Riverdale.
  • A series of large planted urns, Player’s Green flambeaus and smaller urns by benches throughout the garden have been added.

Residential Estate turned Institutional Asset

  • As a landscape architect I believe it is my responsibility to design spaces that are functionally appropriate for intended users, are hospitable, protect the health safety and welfare of the public and the natural order, have sensitivity for the original intent of THE previous designer, and ultimately are maintainable and understood by the owner.
    • The restored Riverdale Garden respects plant species intent, but in some cases updates the plant palette to more robust species selection.
    • All built elements in the garden: brick walks, stone pergola columns, and walls are detailed and built to last for over 100 years.
    • Safety and visibility through night lighting is an important addition to the garden.

Many people and organizations have contributed to the garden over the years and their efforts are very much adored and appreciated. This garden would not be what it is today without so many of these individuals.

Upcoming events and in the news

Barth will be speaking about Riverdale Garden to the Indianapolis Progressive Club on Oct. 8 at Marian University. An article on Riverdale and its significance will be featured in the Indianapolis Star on Sept. 9. Be sure to find out more during the Riverdale Garden Restoration ribbon cutting ceremony on Sept. 13. More information on that ribbon cutting can be found here:!view/event/event_id/6611.


Some of the historical information in this talk originated from websites containing information on Jens Jensen’s personal history with Riverdale.

Web resources:; and


Saint Francis of Assisi and His World, Mark Galli, Intervarsity Press, 2002.

For further information on Jens Jensen, his client correspondence and drawings, interested parties should seek out the Morton Arboretum archives in Chicago, Illinois, or the University of Michigan Landscape Architecture Program, Ann Arbor, Michigan.   A cultural landscapes report can found at Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana by contacting Deb Lawrence, Vice President for Administration.


Barth D. Hendrickson, PLA ASLA APA
Principal and Executive Vice President

Barth Hendrickson, PLA ASLA APA is a firm principal whose passion resides in rethinking design solutions that make physical sense of the human experience through planning and design. His solutions add value by stewarding the health and well-being of life on our planet. Many of the firm’s landscape and site design awards are the result of his encouraging a studio focus on the design and management of water, soil, vegetation, material use and, animal/human health and well-being in purposefully programmed spaces. Barth also leads significant projects for the firm.