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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

July 2008 Issue

Bend on the Ohio
Can good design save a historic grain elevator in this Indiana town?

Text, drawings, and photos by Eric Fulford

Bend on the Ohio

Twenty years ago I found myself in the river town of Mount Vernon, Indiana, which is perched high above a horseshoe bend on the Ohio River, to work on the site design for the entire city block of the new public library. During that first visit, just a few miles north I discovered the quiet charm of the early 19th-century utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana, situated on the Wabash River. My appreciation of these two communities and their landscapes has prompted repeated visits with family and friends and, in 1991, my marriage in Phillip Johnson’s Roofless Church in New Harmony to Ann Reed, my partner at NINebark. So when we were invited to join with Dawn Kroh of Green 3, another landscape architecture studio, to develop a vision for 15 acres of Mount Vernon’s river frontage, no persuasion was necessary.

More than 50 small Indiana and Kentucky river towns share the Ohio River; however, Mount Vernon benefits most from its position on a horseshoe bend of the river and its setting among natural, historical, and cultural sites concentrated at the apex of this corner of the state. Its charm as an active working river town rests with innate qualities that don’t rise from previous design or planning interventions—it resides in its economic health and the potential for keeping the local culture intact for residents to enjoy. This can be seen at the small public park and wharf landing, three blocks from the county courthouse, where the community is drawn throughout the day and evening to pause and enjoy the visual power of the river, the continuous towboat and barge traffic, or the boat crews landing to restock groceries before moving up- or downstream.

This is also the place where a grain elevator occupies the heart of what is now being envisioned as a much larger public gathering place. Visible from both the courthouse square and the river, the long silent grain elevator, now shorn of all its auxiliary buildings, stands alone between Water Street and the river. It was for us an immediately compelling landmark. This symbol of American ingenuity represents an economic marriage of agriculture and industry that first fascinated me during childhood trips across Kansas and only grew in importance professionally after I had lived and worked in the Midwest. Ultimately, my appreciation was deepened by reading Reyner Banham’s A Concrete Atlantis, Frank Gohlke’s Measure of Emptiness, and Lisa Mahar-Keplinger’s Grain Elevators, all of which led to my advocacy to incorporate their transformed presence in the design of urban places (see “Tilting at Grain Mills,” Landscape Architecture, April 1994). My initial professional effort, a struggle with White River State Park to preserve the Acme-Evans grain elevators in downtown Indianapolis, was not successful—the silos fell to the wrecking ball (see “A Canal Runs Through It,” Landscape Architecture, May 1999). However, Mount Vernon offers another chance to demonstrate how the potentially adaptable form of the grain elevator can become a stunning destination for both the community and visitors.

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