Descend the broken limestone steps at the northern edge of the Marian College campus and you’ll find a swampy but stately oasis. It’s early summer, and the landscape is pregnant and shaggy. Leathery lily pads covering the long pond have a sculptural quality. Frogs grunt, turtles sun, dragonflies hum. The place has that languid, humid, Indiana feel, but with a medieval air.
Only a historian-botanist would know: This is not your everyday Indiana wetland. In 1913 it was designed as the exquisite private refuge of Indy 500 founder James Allison. Cold Spring Road was then known as “Millionaire’s Row,” where Carl Fisher, Frank Wheeler and others built their summer homes, away from the city bustle.
All 45 acres of the Allison property were landscaped by Jens Jensen, a Danish landscaper who often worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. The kicker is that Jensen used all native plants for the design, presaging a trend — and an ethic — that’s making a comeback today. Combining a desire to preserve the area’s history with a desire to practice the Franciscan tradition of good stewardship, Marian College officials have christened the area the Wetlands Ecological Laboratory, or EcoLab, an urban wetland and historic landscape.
“This is an important spot because it is one of the few historic landscapes that’s intact,” says Dr. David Benson, EcoLab director and director of Marian’s environmental studies program. Benson spreads out a copy of Jensen’s 1911 plan for the area. “The native biodiversity is remarkable,” says Benson, pointing to hibiscus, witch hazel, dogwood and elderberry. Jensen then added architectural touches like limestone spring houses, half moon pools, low amphitheaters and short colonnades, creating a flat, layered look that characterizes the Prairie School style.
A few other architects are currently at work in the area: two “mafia” beaver families. Benson holds up a beaver skull. “The beavers decide the water level of the ponds,” Benson says. “They decide when a tree comes down. We protect certain trees with chicken wire, and let them handle the rest.” But the main task in preserving the biodiversity in the area, Benson says, is getting rid of the exotic plants like honeysuckle and garlic mustard, and helping the native plants keep hold.
So far the college has received grants from the Amos W. Butler chapter of the National Audubon Society and the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust to restore the landscape. “Eventually we’d like to have a conference on historic landscapes and get more interpretive signage,” says Deborah Lawrence, a development director at Marian who’s worked with Benson to draw attention and support for EcoLab.
For now, K-12 students visit EcoLab on field trips, and Marian students use the lab as a window to Indianapolis history, as well as a living, interdisciplinary curriculum for ornithology, zoology, chemistry, creative writing and art. Marian students are now at work on a database of the 120-plus birds in the area and a groundwater study.
The best part is that the area and its 1.5 mile trail system have been open to the public since last fall (bikes and pets are prohibited, though). Everyone’s invited to stroll the grounds as a millionaire might have. EcoLab also welcomes citizen-scientists and volunteers to help with conservation efforts, including seed collection, bird monitoring and exotic plant species management.
For directions, more historical background and volunteer opportunities, visit http://www.marian.edu