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Merit Award - DESIGN

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White River Gardens
Indianapolis, IN

Rundell Ernstberger Associates, LLC

Kevin Osburn, ASLA
Principal, Rundell Ernstberger Associates, LLC
429 East Vermont Street, Suite 110
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Tel. 317-263-0127;
Fax 317-263-2080

Project Purpose

In 1996, the Indianapolis Zoological Society retained the Landscape Architect (LA) to revise its master plan in order to address the future expansion of the Zoo. One of the recommendations of this plan was to focus on the city and the rapidly evolving White River urban waterfront. The LA's recommendation to construct a garden along the river levee was fully realized in 1997, with the unveiling of the design plans for the White River Gardens, a three-acre garden complex and sister institution to the Indianapolis Zoo. The fourteen million dollar complex includes a two-acre exterior garden and a glass-enclosed conservatory. The design objectives are to enlighten the visitor, heighten the imagination, and ultimately elevate the standard for Midwest garden development. Inspired by the agrarian landscape of the Midwest and the richness of its forms, a diverse palette of regional materials was utilized, with detailing aimed at producing a memorable experience of constant discovery.

Role of the Landscape Architect

  • Prepared conceptual graphics used in the fundraising for the project. Lead design firm coordinated the efforts of the design team (architects, engineers, fountain and lighting consultants) and served as the primary client contact from concept through construction.
  • Designed and detailed all exterior site work, including walls, paths, garden structures, fountains, sculptural elements, woodwork, fencing, plantings, utilities, mechanical and electrical systems and Conservatory layout and interior plantings.
  • Initiated the involvement of several artists and craftsmen in the project and oversaw the integration of their work.
  • Assisted in the development of interpretive content for comprehensive environmental graphics system.

Special Factors

The project was conceived, designed, and constructed as a seamless whole, in a collaborative manner with great attention to connecting building and site through architectural form and massing, masonry materials, and consistency of detail.

The major design challenge of providing a variety of experiences and the illusion of spaciousness within a relatively small site was accomplished through thoughtful transitions between garden spaces, a rich diversity of plantings, intriguing sightlines, and small surprises.

The Gardens are comprised of smaller garden "rooms" (Design Garden, Knot Garden, Sun Garden, Shade Garden, Water Garden, Ornamental Allee and Wedding Garden) which are unique in spatial quality and visual experience. Plant materials in a variety of shapes, textures, and colors were selected to compliment and reinforce the form and meaning of each room.

The structure of the Gardens is defined by a variety of masonry walls of native fieldstone, limestone, and brick and pathways of stone, brick, and crushed stone. Architectural features include stainless steel vine towers and trellises, wood pergolas and trellises, and carved stone sculptures and fountains. Forty-nine bronze "critter" sculptures are scattered around the Gardens to provide surprises. The entire Gardens site and building were constructed at the same time in a very compressed schedule of 18 months.


  • The Gardens are a showcase of landscape architecture for the region and a powerful demonstration of the range of landscape architect's skills. The Gardens have become a major tourist attraction in the City of Indianapolis (Public Perception).
  • The "midwestern garden" concept was carried out through architectural forms, a rich diversity of native materials and plantings, integration of the work of local artists and artisans, and the unity of building and site (Design Quality).
  • White River Gardens fulfills a need for an inspiring and contemplative garden space in the heart of the city (Functionalism).
  • Situated along the White River, the Gardens have a direct connection to the rapidly evolving waterfront, White River State Park, and downtown Indianapolis, lending the Conservatory a strong visual presence in the city's skyline (Context).
  • The project converted parking lot to garden, used native materials, and preserved existing vegetation (Environmental Responsibility).
  • The Gardens provide the public with inspiration, practical tools, and resources for implementing effective and imaginative garden designs (Relevance to Public).
  • The Gardens are a living reminder of and testament to the beauty and artistry to be found in the Midwestern landscape (Relevance to Environment).
  • The White River Gardens were a recipient of the 1999 Indiana Chapter ASLA Honor Award and have been featured on the cover of Landscape Architecture Magazine (Relevance to Profession).

2001 Award Winners
Press Release
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