Salem Heritage Park: a public/private success story

Heritage Park in Salem, Indiana. Photo courtesy of Landscape, Art, and Architecture (LAA) Office.

In 2019 and 2020, ROI awarded $3 million in Ready Communities grants to support 18 catalytic quality of place projects in the Uplands region. Today, these projects are transforming our region’s live, work, and play amenities through new and innovative partnerships.

The Salem Pocket Park, now known as Heritage Park, is an excellent example of how public/private collaboration is salient to the development of community assets, and in this instance, activating an underutilized public space.

The Washington County Community Foundation (WCCF) initially partnered with the Salem Mayor’s Office and the Director of Salem Parks and Recreation to develop their initial Ready Communities grant proposal. In early 2019, in collaboration with the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement (CRE), they held a public “meet and greet” and discovered that green space in downtown Salem was a priority for residents. A shared vision emerged for a pocket park that incorporated public art. Working with CRE and architects at the Landscape, Art, and Architecture (LAA) Office, a design studio based in Columbus, Indiana, they conducted a stakeholder survey and identified six potential locations for a downtown, quality-of-place renovation.  

The choice was made to install a series of public amenities that would link Salem’s downtown Square to the John Hay Center, a cultural complex dedicated to the history of Washington County. With the help of Indiana University architecture graduate students, LAA Office created a plan. The new public green space would feature three public art installations honoring significant women in Salem’s history, along with gardens and places to sit and relax along the trail. This unique cultural promenade would provide much-needed green space for the entire community and stimulate business activity through increased walkability.

WCCF partnered with the local paper to conduct a reader poll to identify six significant women in Washington County’s history. One hundred and sixty-seven residents responded with who they thought should be featured in the mural. Once the historic women were chosen, WCCF circulated an RFQ nationwide to find an artist to paint the mural. Forty submissions were received. After a meticulous process, which included interviews with the finalists, the City selected Chicago artist Rafael Blanco. Utilizing designs from LAA Office architects, volunteers also painted a colorful walkway along the trail in front of the new deck and created gardens.

Contemporary mural artist Rafael Blanco was commissioned to honor significant women in Salem’s history.
The six women featured on the mural include Sarah Parke Morrison (first female graduate of Indiana University and subsequently their first female faculty member), Emma Christy Baker (first black, female police officer of the Indianapolis Police Department), Lula “Desse” Rudder (first licensed female pharmacist in Indiana), Terry Hall (NCAA women’s basketball coach), Dr. Mary Reid Lusk (a self-made neighborhood doctor and participant in the region’s underground railroad operations), and Bradie Shrum (a dedicated child educator and namesake of the local elementary school where she taught for 60+ years). Photo courtesy of LAA Office.

The success of this project inspired the WCCF Board of Directors to look for other opportunities to install public art projects. WCCF has partnered with the IU Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture and Design to create two public art installations at Lake Salinda. This project is already fully funded, thanks to a grant from the WCCF. New partnerships are also occurring with the City of Salem, Salem High School, and a local leadership group, Awareness Washington County, to improve safety, security, and beauty along existing walking trails.  

Photos courtesy of LAA Office.

Heritage Park, quickly executed after funding was received, serves as a model of how partnerships in the region can produce world-class amenities with the potential to bring communities together and increase attraction. Through this one project, stakeholders thoughtfully addressed goals they defined together. Specifically, the Salem Pocket Park honors underrepresented voices, increases the beauty of downtown Salem, creates new programming and amenities, and attracts tourism and commerce. In the long term, this project has created partnerships and public enthusiasm that will catalyze other quality of place projects and regional amenities for the benefit of all Indiana Uplands residents. It is a great example of how a community leveraged ROI’s Ready Communities initiative for an outcome that is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.

For more information on this project, check out “LAA Office brings “barn quilt urbanism” to downtown Salem, Indiana, with new Heritage Park,” featured in The Architect’s Newspaper.