Q&A with Architect Eric Kuhne about Headwaters Park


Allée leading toward the Foliatum, a trellis pavilion where weddings, parties, and anniversaries are held. Image courtesy of Ray Steup/Flickr under Creative Commons License

Headwaters Park plan and sonnet.
Image copyright CivicArts/Eric R. Kuhne & Associates


Headwaters Park, a beloved riverfront park in the heart of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was designed by CivicArts/Eric R. Kuhne & Associates. We asked architect Eric Kuhne to elaborate on his design philosophy for Headwaters.

Headwaters Park attracts millions of visitors each year. In your view, why is the park so successful?

Eric Kuhne: Headwaters Park transformed an industrial wasteland into a new Central Park for Fort Wayne. After 1994, when the Park was complete, no child growing up in Fort Wayne will ever know the city without this grand, elegant Central Park.

Headwaters Park was designed to flood and became the most successful environmental flood control project in the Midwest. Cleaning up debris after a flood is easier on land than in rivers. While it would take months to clear a river of [debris], this can be done in a weekend on the park.

Originally, Headwaters Park was designed for eight festivals. Today, it holds over 25 major events per year, and turns a profit. We set up a Headwaters Park Endowment that is invested. Dividends pay for the operation and maintenance of the park. It is the finest maintained park in the entire county. And it is a privately owned, managed, funded, and operated park (separate from the Fort Wayne Park Department System). All of this was inspired by the Central Park Conservancy.

Headwaters Park is located just north of Fort Wayne’s Central Business District, adjacent to downtown. What is the significance of the park’s location in close proximity to a downtown area?

Kuhne: Headwaters Park was designed to be the “lungs” of the downtown.

Places for the great Festival Calendar were designed into the park: two festival terraces, a garden amphitheater, bridge meadow, and elliptical lawn. We designed the park as an outdoor exhibition space, with the same philosophy of managing a convention or exhibition center: bookings of garden rooms; organizing festivals and events; and creating complete underground infrastructure for power, water, and sewer for each of the primary garden rooms.

Today, Headwaters is the “forecourt” to the downtown. The Landscape Follies include Foliatum, a trellis pavilion where weddings, parties, and anniversaries are held; Fontenelle, a fountain “room” where three walls of water jets form an equilateral triangular room; and Forestina, a garden pavilion defined by poplar trees and magnolias, where the branches are wired together to form a tree chapel.

Can you comment on the role of parks like this one in relation to economic development?

Kuhne: A civilization is measured by the capacity of its society to restore the landscape it displaced. Cities are judged as much by the quality of life they offer as by their economy. Park frontage defines economic property value: think of Central Park in Manhattan, or the great Georgian squares of London. The City Beautiful movement in North America, led by Charles Mulford Robinson and George Kessler at the beginning of the 20th century, advocated for balancing the industrial landscape with an aesthetic, healthy, generous, and safe garden landscape. Our finest cities are measured by their park systems, boulevards, avenues, and gardens.

How does the park serve to connect the downtown area with the riverfront?

Kuhne: By name alone, Headwaters Park connects the downtown back to the rivers. It replaces the industrial wasteland, from a time when the rivers were transportation arteries. Headwaters Park is the hub of the Rivergreenway network, radiating out from Headwaters to most of the other parks in Fort Wayne (Foster Park, Shoaff Park, Lakeside Park, Johnny Appleseed Park, Kreager Park, Tillman Park, and Swinney Park). Headwaters Park connects the downtown to great neighborhoods of the city through the Rivergreenway.

Headwaters sonnet, written by Eric R. Kuhne in 1996:


Upon a summit proud with plans,

Surveying where we all began:

Three abandoned rivers once lost for years

Unraveled watersheds of native tears

That poured from this continental divide,

Crying heartland streams to oceans wide

Tracing beribboned rivers of our lives.

We restore these waters of distant times

Sliced by patchwork quilts of section lines

Where farms and townships sail the waves

Of grain harvesting one hundred thousand days

As our city grew… By these same hands

At these headwaters, where we now stand

Upon this park as promised land.