Eric Kuhne & Headwaters Park

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

“A city belongs to the citizens.”

-Eric Kuhne

Have you ever been to Headwaters Park? Did you know it was designed by a local boy named Eric Kuhne?

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Slick.

In the spring of 1991, FWMoA mounted an exhibition entitled Headwaters Park: Drawings & Models. It provided visitors with the opportunity to study architect Eric Kuhne’s plans and drawings, which resulted in the artful urban landscape just to the north of our downtown Arts Campus Fort Wayne.  This was not the first designed landscape to be proposed for this part of the city, nor, clearly, the last, as the completion of Promenade Park nears.  Headwaters is a built environment of pavilions, meadows, lawns, follies, paths, sculptures, and gardens. It was also designed to protect downtown Fort Wayne from rising rivers and to be, as Eric said, “The lungs of the downtown”. But the process started a century earlier.

At the turn of the last century, Fort Wayne parks commissioners brought nationally known landscape architect George Kessler to town to evaluate the city and its parks. This was during the City Beautiful movement that spanned the 1890s through the 1920s and brought urban planning to American cities with a focus on aesthetics, civic pride, engagement, and healthier communities.  Kessler’s plan for an extensive park and boulevard system that incorporated the three rivers and their vistas was revealed in 1912. Much of Kessler’s proposal was realized, and is still the backbone of our exceptional city park system.  Kessler had recommended new park development at the confluence of the three rivers and also in the flood prone “thumb” of land just to the north of downtown that is bounded by a sweeping arc of the Saint Mary’s River.  This portion of Kessler’s overall plan was not fulfilled, though it was timely, as Fort Wayne endured a devastating flood in 1913.  And then, as WWI redirected so many efforts, the city’s parks had to be put on hold for a time. Another ambitious plan, conceived by Robert Hanna in 1929, to tame the rivers and create public space on the north edge of downtown was also never completed—again, bad timing.

“The idea is every community has a chance to build a place that becomes a center for all its citizens to come together.”

Eric Kuhne

In 1982 the city suffered another massive flood, and this disaster spurred city leaders to finally commit to building a solution to the waterlogged situation, though it would take over a decade to plan, fund, and complete. Mayor Ivan Lebamoff appointed Eric Kuhne to design a beautiful park for this land to replace the tired car lots and industrial sites blighted by repeated flood events and to improve and celebrate the confluence of the three rivers – while also absorbing the river water during flood events.

Kuhne drew inspiration from Kessler and the great Charles Mulford Robinson, his designs evoking City Beautiful concepts and some of Kessler’s 1912 ideas. The park would employ the ideals of a harmonious aesthetic balanced with engineered flood control measures. Kuhne said in an interview with Build a Better Burb that, “Headwaters Park transformed an industrial wasteland into a new Central Park for Fort Wayne”.

The efforts of all of the years of planning, fundraising, and building came to fruition on October 22, 1999 when Headwaters Park was dedicated.

So who was Eric Kuhne, and what became of him after Headwaters? He was an Air Force officer’s son, and had lived in many places around the country until his father retired from the military and moved the family to New Haven, Indiana where Eric attended New Haven High School.  Eric learned to do perspective drawing when he was only seven, and was also intrigued by the architecture, art, and engineering books that were part of the family library. Teenage Eric had the good fortune to be employed by a local architect who taught him many of the fundamentals of an architect’s duties, including drafting and project management.  After earning his Art and Architecture B.A. from Rice University in 1973, he was hired to be the Midtown Architect for the City of Fort Wayne. Initial plans for Headwaters Park were developed then, though this early concept was called Citilights State Park. In 1981 he moved to Princeton, New Jersey to work for the famed Postmodern architect Michael Graves, and also earned his Masters of Architecture from Princeton in 1983.  Kuhne launched his own firm while still in Princeton, earning many prestigious awards including three Progressive Architecture Design Awards – one of these was for Fort Wayne’s Headwaters Park.

“We need a new civic sensibility that deals with the gracefulness of peoples’ lives as opposed to just fueling ambition and achievement.”

Eric Kuhne

Our Headwaters Park was just the beginning for Kuhne who went on to found CivicArts. Working in New York, Sydney, Australia and London, CivicArts has designed and built remarkable destinations all over the globe. Some of them are Darling Park, Sydney, Australia; Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens, Dubai, UAE; Bluewater Park, Kent, UK; Cockle Bay Wharf, Sydney, Australia and Titanic Quarter, Belfast, Ireland, UK. As if all of this was not accomplishment enough, Kuhne also traveled the world as a lecturer on architecture, landscape, art and urban and industrial design with a focus on “restoring the quality of storytelling to architecture, gardens and cities”.

Some of his lectures were Civic versus Public, Skyscrapers versus Starcatchers: Building the Skylines of the Future and Five Cities of the Future. Some additional recordings of Kuhne can be viewed at these links: CTBUH Chicago Conference at Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago 2009, Eric Kuhne interview at Titanic Belfast and the January 29th, 2013 5th Tuesday edition of Fort Wayne City Council

“What I’m interested in is in the poetry and beauty of these things [skyscrapers] as much as the physicality of them, because when you do a silhouette on a skyline, it better captures the heart of the people who have to look at it.”

Eric Kuhne

Eric Kuhne died unexpectedly on July 25, 2016 at the age of 64. More than an architect of projects and public spaces, Kuhne was a visionary, historian, philosopher, and seer.  One interviewer called him a holy man. His works were designed with respect to the context of place, culture, and history, and his journey began with Fort Wayne’s Headwaters Park.

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