While there won’t be a special celebration at Garfield Park this year to culminate the festivities of the ABC Labor Day Miracle Mile Parade, the Southside landmark can still boast that it has staged memorable events of all sizes for more than 140 years.
The park, the city’s oldest recreational center, was the venue for Starlight Musicals’ first production in 1944, and Dolly Parton and Chuck Mangione have performed there. Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, was whisked into the park for a political rally in 1976. Labeled one of the last old-time campaign stops in Indianapolis, the event reportedly featured a country band and vendors hawking buttons and T-shirts; girls in hot pants registered people to vote.
Garfield Park was first known as Southern Trotting Park in 1873 because the original plans called for a horse track. But the community was slow to embrace the idea, and the tracks – some of them figure-8s – soon gave way to curvy roads, whose meandering paths are still prevalent.
In the wake of President James A. Garfield’s assassination in 1881, the park was renamed in his honor.
The grounds are situated on 128 acres of mostly rolling fields, with the terrain attributed to the park’s location at the convergence of Pleasant Run and Bean creeks. Seven bridges, the oldest of which are constructed of limestone, according to park records, span the streams within the park. A dam was once built where the creeks meet to create a pond that was used for ice skating when it froze over, the data indicates. A large hill remains popular with sledders.
Although a tornado in 1992 destroyed 20 percent of the area’s trees, a number of large ones still shade the park, whose picturesque setting is ideal for picnics and reunions. Amenities also include an aquatic center, tennis and basketball courts, playgrounds, a softball diamond and horseshoe pits.
Garfield’s marquis attractions are its conservatory and Sunken Gardens, with patrons regularly visiting the Burrello Family Center, the MacAllister Center for the Performing Arts, the pagoda and the arts center.
But that hasn’t always been the case.
Use of the park remained low during its first 20 years because of its distance from the city and a lack of facilities. The City Council appropriated $20,000 during the late 19th century for improvements, which included extending a streetcar line to the park and building a bridge over Pleasant Run. The first pagoda graced the grounds in 1903; the greenhouse’s capacity was increased the following year, and bicycle paths, tennis courts, two beaches (one for each sex) and exhibits to showcase bears, monkeys and small animals were among the attractions by 1910.
Located at 2450 Shelby St., the park didn’t always cover 128 acres. Nearly 25 percent of its expanse was acquired during the late 1890s and early 1900s and used for the tennis courts, the conservatory and the Sunken Gardens.
The first conservatory was built in 1915, but by midcentury its condition was so dilapidated that it was replaced. It features a rain forest, a 15-foot waterfall, tree frogs, free-flying birds, fish ponds and tropical plants. The facility is probably best known for its spectacular poinsettia show and the Christmas events that are scheduled around it. There are also gardening demonstrations, bulb and flower shows and lectures on horticulture and landscaping.
The Sunkens Gardens and their showy fountains, benches, brick walkways and seasonal flowers were introduced to the community. Fish ponds were originally part of the landscape but have disappeared. Once near ruins, the gardens’ future looks rosy with the renewed interest of neighborhood groups. The grounds feature occasional concerts and are available for weddings.
The arts center was called the Community House from its opening in 1922 until being renovated seven years ago. An outdoor pool was constructed adjacent to it in 1930 and remained in use until the late 1990s, when replaced by the aquatic center.
Opportunities for exercise also await those who visit the Burrello Family Center, which was named after former Senior Park Manager Lynda Burrello. The facility offers a variety of activities, including basketball and flag football leagues for youths.
The MacAllister Center for the Performing Arts, originally known as the amphitheater, was constructed in the mid-1920s and features a covered stage with bench and lawn seating. It has hosted a number of musical and theatrical productions. Summer concert series are the norm, and a Shakespeare group performs there.
A hot spot for cruisers in the early 1980s, the park is also home to Indianapolis Fire Department Station 29 and Garfield Park Library. First known as Shelby Library, the facility was renovated before reopening in November 2011 with its new name.
There are three statues in the park: one of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Lawton, who fought in the Civil War and later led in the capture of Apache warrior Geronimo; a granite shaft dedicated to the 1,616 Confederate soldiers who died at the Camp Morton prison at the Indiana State Fairgrounds; and the Grove of Remembrance, created in 1920 to honor fallen soldiers from Indianapolis in World War I.