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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

September 2007 Issue

Restoring Kessler’s Legacy
Resurgent cities build on century-old park and boulevard systems.

By Jane Roy Brown

Restoring Kessler.s Legacy C/O Storrow Kinsella Associates, Inc.

“Residences go up in remote parts of the city, near the city limits, or in the suburbs, in order to escape the erratic tendency of shops and small business houses to fasten themselves upon a colony of houses that promise patronage, only, however, to draw other small shops and business houses that seem determined to capture local trade.... [T]he natural result is a large sprawling combination of city and village.”

These observations could apply to nearly any American city today, but they were written about Kansas City, Missouri, in 1893, in a report from the board of Park and Boulevard Commissioners to the aptly named Mayor Cowherd. The commissioners and their “engineer,” 31-year-old landscape architect George Edward Kessler (1862–1923), proposed a solution to the city’s chaotic growth: a park and boulevard system that would link a chain of individual parks via sinuous green parkways that followed stream corridors and a grid of boulevards, creating a network of transportation and recreation corridors. The system also strategically spurred the growth of residential development along the boulevards. Iconic structures—pergolas, exedrae, a neoclassical colonnade —and architectural details such as low limestone walls along neighborhood roads lent a sophisticated European sensibility to the streetscape and open spaces while establishing a human scale.

 The Kansas City Park and Boulevard System served as a model for similar ones Kessler later designed in Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Denver, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and other cities, chiefly in the Mississippi River watershed. During his 40-year career he designed 26 residential communities, 26 park and boulevard systems, 49 parks, 46 residential designs, and 26 school campuses scattered over 23 states, as well as in Mexico and China. As his career progressed, his large-scale vision drew him increasingly toward planning, and in 1917 he cofounded the American Institute of Planners. (Although the newly established ASLA rebuffed his first application for membership, a snub that rankled for years, he later joined.)

Born and educated in Germany, he studied the work of influential landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenné and of Prince Pückler-Muskau. “The park that influenced him most profoundly in Germany was the Park an der Ilm in Weimar, a pastoral landscape created by Goethe along the banks of the River Ilm,” says Kurt Culbertson, FASLA, Kessler’s biographer and the CEO of Design Workshop. “The idea of preserving stream corridors and mixing formal and informal elements is very much part of the German tradition.” (Culbertson expects to publish a long-awaited book on Kessler, as well as a related work, Landschaft und Gartenkunst: The German Contribution to the Development of Landscape Architecture in America, with University of Virginia Press in the next two years.)

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