March / April 2002

AAA Hoosier Motor Club
H o m e  &  A w a y

My Secret Garden
Indianapolis Museum of Art

by Jennifer A. Harrison

In the midst of a metropolis the country-era estate of Josiah K. Lilly, Jr. is a welcome respite from urban life. The world-class art museum is nice, but the park-like grounds offer an inspired garden oasis. The grounds of the estate, known as Oldfields, sprawl over 152 acres and include a lake, canal, woods and 26 acres of historic gardens.

When the home was built this area, northwest of downtown, was the country. But urban sprawl has swallowed the countryside in these parts. In contrast, these grounds are an unexpected work of art and little-known jewel of the city.

The Landon family created the estate, known as Oldfields, and built an impressive French-chateau style home in 1912. In 1920 the Landons hired the Olmsted Brothers to develop the grounds of Oldfields. History has come to view the Olmsted Brothers as the authors of American landscape design. Their achievements include New York City’s Central Park, the capitol mall in Washington DC and other well-known sites. 

Employed by the Olmsteds, Percival Gallagher came to Indianapolis and helped the Landons design a fitting landscape for their European-style home. At Oldfields, Gallagher laid out the overall grounds as well as several formal and informal gardens surrounding the home. 

In 1932 Josiah K. Lilly, Jr. purchased the home. Lilly was the second grandson of Col. Eli Lilly, the founder of the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Co. Following the death of Lilly in 1966, the family gave the property to the art museum. The museum built several gallery pavilions, and has admirably maintained and restored the extensive grounds and gardens of the estate. 

Self-Guided Tour
The newly restored, 22-room mansion reopens to the public June 9, 2002. The main level of the home depicts the 1930s lifestyle and furnishings of the Lilly family. The second story interprets local and family history, displays collections of J.K. Lilly Jr., and offer visitors a chance to play interior and landscape designer with interactive exhibits. Mr. Lilly was an avid collector of books and manuscripts, lead toy soldiers, gold coins, stamps, ship models and artwork depicting the sea.

But before we proceed, please recall this nostalgic estate harbors my secret garden. This little getaway is just between us, okay? 

From the main parking lot head west toward the north side of the museum and the Civic Theatre. Close to the theater and underground parking lies a path through a small pine woods. This leads to an old bridge and the gardens of the old estate. Start a self-guided garden tour here. This walkway leads to a high place overlooking the formal arbor garden. Here the path diverges. The left trail leads to the newly restored Rapp Family Ravine Garden. The sunny ravine garden was the first space designed by Gallagher at Oldfields. 

Garden Delights
In the ravine garden one finds a sunny hillside filled with rock garden and alpine plants, as well as thousands of flowering bulbs. The ravine garden sweeps behind the formal garden and leads to a gorge. A rustic Japanese bridge and bubbling stream span the ravine. Two ancient beech trees guard the picturesque scene. Crossing the bridge take a moment to admire the limestone bench designed by Gallagher overlooking the canal. From this vantage point you’ll notice a newly installed historic bridge, built about 1880, from Montgomery County, Indiana. The bridge allows access to a greenway that will be developed as the Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. 

From the bench overlook head toward the mansion. Then turn south on the walkway that joins the home and the Richard Wood Formal Garden. Along the enchanting walkway between the home and garden reside two large marble statues. These classically whimsical Greek statues were placed by the Landons. The male figure may represent Bacchus, the god of wine.

Over time the formal rose garden planned by Gallagher decayed and was planted over in ground cover and evergreens. A gift in 1992 made restoration of the garden possible. Now restored to its former beauty, four imposing rose arbors stretch like compass points around a classic circle within a square pattern. Several thousand tulip, hyacinth and daffodil bulbs fill the beds with an explosion of color in the spring. During the summer perennials and the rose arbors provide the color show. An antique English fountain provides a pleasing focal point in the middle of the space. Gravel paths and low walls complete this pleasing composition of landscape art.

Flora and Fauna
Continue exploring the grounds by heading east from the formal garden. Along a wooded path, you’ll find ferns frolicking in dappled sunlight among Virginia bluebells in spring. In summer, showy white hydrangeas bloom from late July through August.

Across the expanse of shady grounds and a sunny lawn, head for the old playhouse and its garden. The playhouse was used as a guest home by the Lillys, it is now a small restaurant with the ambiance of an English tearoom. Newly updated, The Garden Terrace serves lunch Tues. through Sat., and brunch on Sunday. 

Find the Garden of the Four Seasons on the south side of the restaurant. This garden features a large-shallow pool with a small fountain. Cherubic children statuary represent the four seasons. Flowering trees, including crap apples, wisteria and dogwoods, as well as evergreens encircle the small garden. 

Next wander over to the intriguing informal gardens laid out by Gallagher. These informal Border Gardens wind along the playhouse and main road leading to the old mansion. These were Mrs. Landon’s favorite gardens in which to stroll. Here one finds verbena, hardy begonia, yellow wax bell, spicy bear britches and a variety of hostas including the fragrant August lily grandiflora hosta. 

Adjacent to the informal gardens you'll find the tree-lined mall or allee. The allee leads to a statue of the Three Graces, with an intriguing backdrop of pine trees. End your tour here or head to the Greenhouse and explore its several gardens. 

To the north of the greenhouse is a sunny herb garden. Behind the greenhouse is a woodland garden with informal paths winding along the hillside between the home and greenhouse. Known as the Hillside Rambles these trails encourage woodland exploration and quiet contemplation. Whatever the growing season kindred spirits are sure to find inspiration and reprieve at my secret garden.#

If You Go
Guided tours available, call the museum for dates and times.

Indianapolis Museum of Art    317-923-1331
1200 West 38th Street, Indianapolis

Hours: Tues., Weds., Fri., Sat. 10:00 am-5:00 pm ; 
           Thurs.10:00 am-8:30 pm;
           Sun. noon-5:00 pm. 
           Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days.