Marian University will restore the St. Francis Colonnade and Riverdale Gardens to both its architectural excellence and its tradition as a reflection of our Catholic Franciscan identity. The St. Francis Colonnade has a unique history and has become a special landmark on campus, so plans are in place to restore and enhance the feature. By now, the story has been told and retold so many times that it almost seems to be legend, but it’s true—all of it.
October 10, 1936 Mother Clarissa Dillhoff made an offer to the Fletcher Trust Company in order to purchase the Allison Mansion at Riverdale. She gave them 24 hours to accept the offer or the deal was null. Of course, as we all know, the deal was accepted, and Marian College relocated to Indianapolis in 1937.
Riverdale, the estate of automotive entrepreneur James A. Allison, is located on Cold Spring Road, once known as “Millionaires Row” and home to the lavish estates of Allison, Carl Fisher, Frank Wheeler, and Charles Sommers, among others. The estate was constructed from 1911-14 for Allison and completed at a reported cost of $2 million. The Riverdale estate is one of the few rare Indianapolis examples of the type of country home built by wealthy citizens during the American country house era. At the time, Allison Mansion was dubbed the “House of Wonders” because it contained many state-of-the-art conveniences for the time, including a telephone intercom system, an indoor pool, and an elevator.
The landscape surrounding the mansion is equally extraordinary. Allison chose master landscape architect Jens Jensen to design the grounds. Jensen, known affectionately as the “Prophet of the Prairie,” created a uniquely American style of landscape architecture, much as his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright did with the design of structures. Although Jens Jensen designed more than 350 private estates during his career, fewer than 10 percent of them remain intact today.
During the beginning of the fourth year of Marian College in Indianapolis, the community was faced with tragedy. Sister Mary Giles Whalen recorded, “A sophomore, Georgiana Feldman from Millhousen, Indiana, died suddenly on campus, October 24, 1940. A year later her parents donated a life-size terracotta statue of St. Francis of Assisi in her memory.”
Additionally, that same year, the Stations of the Cross were erected on the inside of 14 of the pillars from the Jensen design. A dedication plaque, still attached to one of the pillars reads, “To Foster Love of the Way of the Cross – The Donors, 1941.” From this time forward, this key area within Jensen’s design became known as the Franciscan Colonnade, and served as an important place of prayer and reflection on campus. Additionally, for many years, the green space near the Franciscan Colonnade served as the location for commencement ceremonies.
By renovating the pergola, adding religious sculptures, creating seating for reflection, and creating a maintenance endowment, we will ensure that the St. Francis Colonnade and Riverdale Gardens continue to promote our values for years to come.