Transforming a Crumbling Monument into A Theatre That Builds Community Through Art and Culture

First open to the public in 1899, Riverside Park was once the crown jewel of Indianapolis’ parks and boulevards system. Its modern footprint is 862 acres — 22 more than New York’s Central Park. After more than a century, the time had come to reinvigorate Riverside.

The Riverside Regional Park Master Plan was completed in 2017 and set forth a bold vision. From crumbling to rocking, this is the story of how the first project implemented from the plan resulted in a heart transplant for the community.

The Result of a Robust Planning Process

In 1898, the Board of Park Commissioners and Mayor Thomas Taggart negotiated the purchase of large tracts of land around Indianapolis to form new park and parkway systems in the northwest and northeast parts of the city. The largest was the 953-acre tract along the White River that would become Riverside Park. When it opened in 1899, Riverside Park was one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. In its prime, Riverside Park featured some of the city’s most beautiful park structures, including a large shelter house, decorative bridges, and boathouses that provided access to the river.

Taggart Memorial, 1936

The Decline

Investment in Riverside Park declined after World War II and many facilities were demolished and never replaced while others suffered decades of neglect. Interstate 65 was built through the park in the 1960s, destroying some of its popular recreational spaces. Riverside Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 as a part of the Indianapolis Park & Boulevard System Historic District.

Returning Riverside to its Former Glory

The 2017 Master Plan sought to return Riverside Regional Park to its former glory and included the most extensive public input process to date for a public park in Indianapolis. Engagement included a Citizen’s Steering Committee and a Technical Steering Committee, three open houses, dozens of stakeholder interviews, an open design studio in the park, online surveys, and a field trip to Chicago for the steering committees to learn about the funding and management of large-scale transformative public spaces like Millenium Park. The engagement process established a new precedent for how parks planning is conducted in Indianapolis and has since been replicated in subsequent master plans.

The thoroughness of the engagement process meant that the plan enjoyed widespread support from the public, stakeholders, and the community, and it was readily approved by several regulatory bodies.

In total, the plan identified about $120M in improvements and was envisioned to take 20-25 years to complete.

A Priority of the Plan

The very first project to be implemented was the development of an outdoor theatre, which was identified as a priority through the public engagement process. As envisioned in the plan, the performance venue would be anchored to the Taggart Memorial which was built to honor Mayor Thomas Taggart’s vision for a park and boulevard system in Indianapolis. The memorial was constructed in 1931, just shortly after Taggart passed away.

The monument was a neoclassical colonnade constructed of Indiana limestone and was sited on axis with a primary boulevard entry into the park. The prominent location meant the structure quickly became an iconic focal point and gateway. Unfortunately, within a short period of time, the monument began to suffer from a lack of maintenance. By 2017, the monument had experienced such significant damage that it had to be fenced off to prevent anyone from being injured by falling pieces of limestone.

Before Restoration, 2019

Lack of Investment

The dreadful condition of what was once such an iconic structure symbolized the frustration the community felt with the City’s lack of investment in the park. Like many cities around the country, Indianapolis accomplishes amazing things with less than what is needed for maintenance and capital improvements – but that means that high-cost repairs and attention to maintenance-intensive features are often deferred in favor of more critical needs.

Creative Funding Strategy

For this reason, in 2018 the Parks Alliance of Indianapolis identified a grant opportunity offered by the Lilly Endowment. The Strengthening Indianapolis Through Arts and Cultural Innovation Grant was designed to fund projects that offered the potential for enhancing community. Seeing an opportunity to implement the vision for the amphitheatre, the Alliance formed a partnership that included Indy Parks, Historic Landmarks of Indiana, and the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company. In support of the partnership, park designer RATIO provided pro-bono design services to advance the design to the point that more accurate cost estimates could be developed and created imagery that helped to communicate the vision.

Community Engagement
Community Engagement
Community Engagement

Importance of Community

After a rigorous review process, the Lilly Endowment announced in 2018 that the project would receive the largest single arts and culture grant given that year – $9.2M. The significance of the award cannot be overstated; it showed the community that their input was key to the success of securing the funding, and that the city was serious about implementing the outcomes of the plan.

RATIO’s In-House Expertise

With funding in place, RATIO was retained to provide design services and assembled a team of consultants with expertise in sound design, theater design and limestone masonry restoration. RATIO’s in-house resources included preservation specialists, architects and landscape architects. A steering committee was formed with representatives from each of the partner organizations.

A Performance Venue or An Outdoor Theatre?

As part of the grant application, it had been determined that the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company would be the resident artist. Each year in July, “Indy Shakes” presents three performances of a Shakespeare play. These performances were always outside, free to the public, and depended on mobile stages and temporary sound equipment. Now Indy Shakes would have an opportunity to have a permanent home with a large stage, high quality sound system, and theatrical lighting.

Early in the design process, Indy Shakes defined some critical factors that would determine the program. Representatives from Indy Shakes helped the design team understand that there was a big difference between a “performance venue” and an “outdoor theatre.” The Taggart, as it soon came to be called, would need to be an outdoor theatre. As such, intimacy would be key to the experience. This meant that capacity was set at no more than 650. An accessible, tiered, bowl-shaped space was configured to ensure that there were excellent site lines from any of the seats in the house. The stage was to be 50’ wide to give performers the required play space, and wood was selected as the stage surface to make the actors more comfortable during the physically demanding performances. A cutting-edge sound system ensures that even whispered dialogue was clearly audible in the back row. Two small new buildings were designed to contain changing areas, rooms for sound and lighting equipment, actor bathrooms, public restrooms and storage. Each building included a ship’s ladder to the roof, so that actors could extend the play space to the top of the structures.

Indy Shakes

Indy Shakes is key to the cultural calendar of The Taggart but represents only three days of the summer performance schedule. To ensure a diverse, equitable and inclusive lineup of performances throughout the year, The Parks Alliance issued a RFP to programming consultants. The Alliance selected GANGGANG, a local creative agency focused on activating the creative economy to center beauty, equity and culture in cities. Partnering with GANGGANG has ensured a culturally rich program for The Taggart that is reflective of the community.

Lessons Learned

High quality outdoor performance venues can be costly endeavors, so engaging theater and acoustic design experts is important. For The Taggart, acousticians modelled the sound various speaker systems would produce in order to dial in the right equipment, help to integrate it into the overall design, and determine if unwanted sound would bleed into the adjacent neighborhood. Theater consultants were critical to the stage design and helped to make sure that infrastructure like cable trays were integrated in the plan.

Partnerships are key to the vitality of outdoor theatres and performance venues; they require significant maintenance and programming, so having partners who can focus on those separate needs is important. Finally, any project of this scale should include an annual budget for maintenance.

What It Means to the Community

The Taggart has become a place of joy and celebration and has given the neighborhood a sense of pride and an optimism about Riverside Park’s future. The variety of performances means that The Taggart brings together people from diverse backgrounds who might not otherwise cross paths. Completion of The Taggart has given Riverside Park a heart transplant, and it is pumping life blood into the community through the arts.