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The visit of Eric Kuhne
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
It was a stellar presentation that enthralled a packed house in City Council chambers on January 29.
Eric Kuhne, internationally renowned urban designer…not to mention Fort Wayne boy… uplifted the spirits of everyone present. In his animated presentation he wove in a version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, his projects in Dubai and London, and the plodding — but brilliant — history of urban beatification in Fort Wayne, including his signature work at Headwaters Park.
It could have been a tent revival, the energy was that palpable.
Kuhne was the guest of the Friends of the Parks, a group devoted to the beautification of Fort Wayne. His stage was Council President Tom Didier’s first Fifth Tuesday event. He was introduced by his old colleague Karl Bandamer; his council sponsor was his Headwaters Park mentor, Councilman John Shoaff; and he sat next to his close friend, Councilman Geoff Paddock. In the audience was his former boss, Mayor Win Moses; a cadre of city employees led by John Urbahns, the director of Community Development; and a house that included former councilman Ben Eisbart, a hospital president, a key player in the Downtown Development Trust, architects, neighborhood leaders and dozens of regular folk. Mayor Henry was certainly watching from home.
But, viewing from on high was former Mayor Ivan Lebamoff who gave Kuhne his start in the 1960s. Mayor Lebamoff fought for and then established the payout from I&M that has come to be called the Legacy Fund. Lebamoff also initiated the Headwaters Park project. It was also his night.
Kuhne’s presentation wove those names together with David Foster, Georg Kessler, Charles Mulford Robinson and Arthur Shurcliff into a 120 -year progression of fits and starts that has focused on of our greatest asset: the rivers.
In 1900s, our riverbanks were little more than dumps. In a town heated by coal, cartloads of ashes were dumped down the banks. When an old building came down or a street was torn up the bricks went over the side. In the 50s and 60s it was the norm to see an old Frigidaire in a tangle of vines and scrub. Later, tires decorated long stretches of riverbank. It was the poor man’s dump. Pictures from the era show mounds of debris crawling 20 feet up the bank. You can just imagine the armies of rats and the stench.
In the early 1900s a few community leaders advanced the idea of cleaning rivers and beautifying Fort Wayne. David Foster, in particular, the father of the Fort Wayne Park Board of Commissioners and the donor of his namesake park, hired two of the worlds top landscape architects and urban designers to provide a design for Fort Wayne river development.
First, came Charles Mulford Robinson, oft called the father of American landscape design, and then George Kessler, a German-born, Texas-raised, and German-trained landscape revolutionary; he was arguably among the very first of urban planners and, like Kuhne, would go on from Fort Wayne to the heights of acclaim.
Kessler espoused Fort Wayne become a city in a garden, and presented a plan for a park and boulevard system integrated with river drives. The rivers were central to each part of the plan.
The price tag was something like $5 million in 2012 dollars. Council turned him down. Foster fumed and organized the Park Board to undertake part of the plan: Rudisill Boulevard was built by the Park Board and Foster Park created. Eventually, State Boulevard and Anthony were constructed, and the central park of Kessler’s plan was fulfilled, if only a bit to the west — Headwaters Park.
That is where Eric Kuhne first comes in. John Shoaff, then the newly minted chairman of the Headwaters Park, hired Kuhne to produce a vision. Eventually, Headwaters was built and Kuhne parlayed the success into a flourishing business that has produced award-winning projects from Fort Wayne to London to Istanbul to Moscow to Singapore to Dabai. Kuhne is now a giant in the business…thanks in part to Shoaff, Foster and Kessler.
So, fast-forward and Kuhne was back in Fort Wayne to encourage city council to go full bore on riverfront development. There is that rare confluence of opportunity, means and enthusiasm. Fort Wayne has the Legacy Fund to improve upon what Kessler and Foster envisioned. We have a council led by Tom Smith, Shoaff, Tom Didier and Headwaters Park manager Geoff Paddock who have a greater vision for Fort Wayne and are determined to lift the community up two or three notches.
Over the past 10 years many people have weighed into the discussion of what to do with our river asset. Dan Wire has organized a group called Friends of the Rivers who have done as much to remind us of the possibilities. Karl Bandamer, who leads at the Alliance, has tirelessly toted around his own set of dog-eared, yellowing drawings. The Friends of the Parks, Fort Wayne Trails, Arts United, the Downtown Improvement District, Mayor Henry and a dozen more organizations have pushed the idea forward and want to contribute linkage, means and energy.
So, Kuhne, the veritable son of Kessler, who worked for Mayors Lebamoff and Moses and who is credited with reviving the Kessler Plan, was back to inspire council. During the few short days of his visit he met with most of the power players in town in an effort to outline steps that will need be taken to make useful each foot of the river from the Confluence to Swinney Park.
Mayor Tom Henry is adamant about wanting to link the rivers to the Arts Campus on Main and make it the signature attraction of Fort Wayne. Will there be promenades and boat docks, cafes and pedestrian bridges, a terrace in front of the Water Filtration Plant, a giant fountain at the Confluence? Will there be plantings of sycamores and tulip trees? Will the Thieme Overlook be extended and restored? Will parklands connect the north side of Superior all the way from Headwaters to Guildin Park and showcase Hamilton’s grand mansion?
Kuhne was here to stoke the fire on a project that is, of anything proposed in the Legacy process, quintessentially “transformational.”
We blew it in 1912 when council came up on the long side of short-sighted. The cost will be greater now, of course, but if there is a true Legacy to leave to our children from the Class of 2013 this is it.