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Courtesy photo by Colleen BartzschFamed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen designed the chapel (left) as the central element of Concordia Theological Seminary's campus in Fort Wayne, teaming with American Modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley.

Place for reflection

'Sacred groves' products offamed designer

When the Rev. Robert Roethe­meyer looks across Concordia Theological Seminary’s campus, he sees little clumps of four or five trees, sometimes of the same species, amid a broad lawn. 

He calls them “sacred groves,” and indeed, he says, that was how they were seen by the person who meticulously laid out the plantings on the 191-acre campus on the north side of Fort Wayne more than 50 years ago.

“He had this idea that you could sit under this sacred grove and in the natural environment and reflect on the questions of life,” says Roethemeyer, director of library and information services, has been the unofficial shepherd of the seminary’s buildings and grounds for several years.

“It bespeaks his vision of what the campus was about, a place for reflection and contemplation of the gifts of God.”

The visionary for Concordia’s grounds was landscape architect Dan Kiley. And today, says Julie Donnell, a founder of non-profit Friends of the Parks, the Boston-born practitioner of Modernism is “probably the pre-eminent American landscape architect of the last century.”

Yet, she says, most area residents probably don’t know that Fort Wayne houses one of Kiley’s major works. That’s why the Friends are spearheading a stop by a nationally touring exhibit conceived to mark the centennial of Kiley’s birth in 1912 – and plead for the preservation of his legacy.

“The reason we are doing this is, very seriously, that we don’t recognize these landscapes, and this is an opportunity for people to understand how beautiful they are and how important they are to our cultural heritage,”  says Donnell, who is also on the board of the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., organizer of the exhibit.

Featuring Kiley’s plan for Concordia among 27 of his more than 1,000 projects commissioned worldwide, the exhibit opens Tuesday at the Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery of the Allen County Public Library. Associated events are a reception and panel discussion with two Kiley experts at the library at 6:30 p.m. Friday and a Concordia campus tour guided by Roethemeyer at 10 a.m. Saturday. All are free and open to the public.

The exhibit comes to Fort Wayne after appearing in Indianapolis and Columbus, two other Indiana cities with significant Kiley works. Some of his best-known landscapes include the Air Gardens of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Washington, D.C.’s Benjamin Banneker Park and Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

Mark Zelonis, deputy director of environmental and historic preservation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, steward of a Kiley installation at the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, says Kiley created “three-dimensional works of art” in which, true to Modernist credo, plantings and structures work seamlessly together.

Kiley, Zelonis says, liberally borrowed from Classical traditions and geometry in his designs, often juxtaposing contrasting features such as curves and angles. “One thing about a Kiley landscape is that it creates vistas for you,” Zelonis says, “whereas other (designed landscape) spaces often confine your vista, so that they are essentially private rooms.”   

In the mid-1950s, as Kiley was establishing his career, he teamed with famed Finnish-American Modernist Eero Saarinen to create a living setting to go with the 28 buildings, including a chapel, that Saarinen had been commissioned to design by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The Synod had recently established Concordia Senior College, the first Protestant pretheological college in the United States, and needed to build the campus from the ground up. 

Saarinen, who designed the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., conceptualized the campus as a northern European village. Its central element was the chapel, with its triangular shape and steeply pitched roof.

On its website, the foundation now lists the preservation status of the landscape as “faltering” because of changes and lack of public recognition of Kiley’s work. But, unlike some fundamentally altered or neglected Kiley landscapes, Concordia’s still reflects his and Saarinen’s vision, Roethemeyer says.

In the recent expansion of the campus library, seminary officials took pains not to disturb campus sight lines laid down by the two, he says. And, after a tornado hit the campus in 2001, destroying nearly 800 trees, the seminary called the 89-year-old Kiley back to campus to consult “on how we could work through that in restoring the landscape,” Roethemeyer says.

“He prioritized how he would restore the trees through time,” he says, and that plan is basically still being followed.

While preserving a house because of its historical significance isn’t unusual these days, Roethemeyer says the idea of preserving a landscape takes some explaining.

After all, as a product of nature, aren’t landscapes constantly growing, changing and evolving? Which landscape do you preserve? And if a pest decimates a species – such as the emerald ash borer recently did on the Concordia campus – do you, in the name of preservation, replace what was there, only to face the threat of losing it again?  

After the tornado, nurseries throughout the region were combed for established trees to replace destroyed ashes, Roethemeyer says. But with the ash borer, infected ashes were simply removed, and it hasn’t been determined how they will be replaced. The woods bordering campus are being managed as natural areas, and, like other trees there, ashes are left to fall when they die, Roethemeyer says.

Lack of funds has meant some of Kiley’s vision on campus has remained unfulfilled, including a planting of willow trees along the shore of its 9-acre central lake, Roethemeyer says. Also unfulfilled: A listing of the campus on the National Register of Historic Places; officials at the Cultural Landscape Foundation believe such an application would be favorably received.

Roethemeyer says about five years ago the seminary was turned down for a grant to prepare a campus master plan that would have advanced applying for the registry. The seminary has not pursued listing since, though the institution values its architectural heritage, he says.

So, he holds out hope. “There is a tremendous amount of work involved in that (registry nomination),” Roethemeyer says. “I think we will revisit that question.”