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Suburban living was a new concept

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

One of the best-known neighborhoods in Fort Wayne, Wildwood Park, was among the city's earliest subdivisions. It was the pride and joy of Fort Wayne's first advocates of city planning, Lee J. Ninde and his wife, Joel Roberts Ninde.

The couple gave Fort Wayne what could be considered the physical prototype of suburbia. Their Wildwood Company created a new kind of residential development, one guided by an overall plan. Their ideals called for no straight, grid-patterned streets, nor any alleys. Trees were spared wherever possible or were carefully nursed back to health.

Wildwood Park is the plush hilltop development that centers on North Washington Road between Jefferson Boulevard and the Fort Wayne Country Club. Ninde's fascination with urban planning would cause him to give up his family profession and launch into a field that was just beginning.

Born in 1874 to Judge Lindley and Beulah Ninde, whose home on Fairfield Avenue became the nucleus for Lutheran Hospital, Lee J. Ninde graduated from Harvard in 1895 with a degree in law.

He returned to Fort Wayne to practice with his father and brother Daniel. He married Joel Roberts in 1900 and, within 10 years, had given up the bar and thrown himself into the neighborhood development movement.

Lee Ninde's inspiration was his wife. Joel Roberts was born in Mobile, Ala., in 1874, and came to Indiana at a young age. Raised in traditional fashion, Joel Ninde had no formal training in architecture. But she was so repulsed by the "mail-order houses" of most neighborhoods and the "silly ostentation of useless gingerbread" homes with their plate-glass doors and garish Victorian colors that she began utilizing her considerable painting talents in the design of aesthetic, but utilitarian, homes, both modest and grand.

Prior to 1910, no sooner would she design and build one of her "artistic cottages," with its characteristic profile of a handsome barn, than she would be swamped with hopeful buyers. "Mrs. Ninde Houses" became the talk of Fort Wayne, and this led to the Wildwood development and her husband's involvement in the business.

Lee Ninde became the promoter and real estate agent while Joel Ninde and her partner, Grace E. Crosby, did the designs and supervised the construction. Typical of their approach was their "House of Convenience," a model upon which much of their work was based. It was designed to show off the blend of economical building materials and methods with durability and good looks. It was a house and yard in which handsome individualism was deemed available to the modest as well as to the opulent homeowner.

This was an important beginning in the middle-class dream of home ownership as a source of pride, self-identity and creativity.

She even designed whole neighborhoods, as is the case with today's Wildwood Park. Characteristically comfortable homes on spacious grounds fill this neighborhood, distinctive for its uncharacteristic winding roads and for being on the only hill in Fort Wayne.

To the pioneer settlers of Fort Wayne, these small hills were too steep and too heavily wooded in oak, hickory and elm trees to be worth the effort to tame them. Not until the 1870s, when A. Ely Hoffman, an orchardist and lumberman, purchased 100 acres of the land, was the ridge used at all. His brick house was built on the south crest of the Wildwood Hill, behind which he planted a small field of corn.

Around the turn of the century, the area became very popular as a picnic spot for Fort Wayne adventurers who dared to make the trek from the city by horse and buggy along the old canal route.

In 1910, Ninde, inspired by his wife's architectural work, formed the Wildwood Builders Company and purchased the Hoffman farm for $38,000. The company hired Boston planner Arthur A. Shurtleff to lay out the residential community envisioned by the Nindes: Wildwood. This was the first time a nationally recognized architect had been brought to Fort Wayne to lay out an addition to the city.

Prior to this, all additions - indeed, all city planning - were done in the neoclassical grid of the ancient Romans. Little or no attention was given to the needs for landscaping, parks or playgrounds, or to the quality of housing. Planners were concerned only with property lots. Aesthetically, the old grid pattern was based on the symmetry of ordered blocks ranging from the central square. Alleys were the usual provision for "out-of-sight" functions. Sanitation often was an afterthought, and trees were removed so that saplings could be planted in an orderly fashion.

The Lee and Joel Nindes launched a wholesale revolt against the established pattern. Their roads would follow natural contours rather than be graded to "improve nature." The winding roads would discourage speeding and add to the artistic appearance of the neighborhood.

Long exposure to prairie land had convinced most Hoosiers that any lot not exactly on street level was a failure. But in Wildwood, none of the lots was designed this way. Sunken, or raised, gardens were planned everywhere. In addition, an individual water supply was developed (the pump house for many years was "the secret clubhouse " for kids who lived there), and a well-planned "double sewage" system was developed: one for surface runoff and another, deeper, one for household waste.

Most typical of the Wildwood Company development was its exclusivity. By company rules, no house under a certain value could be built in the development (then, the smallest value allowed was $6,500), and no saloons, mercantile houses, hog pens, asylums, cattle yards, chicken coops or graveyards could be built there.

But these novel ideas did not gain popularity quickly, and growth in Wildwood was slow - some called it "Hungry Hill." As late as 1923, there still were only seven houses in the tract. This was due in part to the development being so far "out in the country."

The extension of the streetcar lines and the paved highway (Jefferson Boulevard West) changed all this in the late 1920s, and the park began to grow rapidly into the more densely populated neighborhood it has been since World War II.

Joel Ninde died March 7, 1916, at the age of 42. She left a deep impression on a young generation of designers - and home buyers - who would throw over the old regime in domestic architecture.

Although she was humbled by her lack of formal training, the new generation was heartened by her example. It was the good taste of the contemporary artist, rather than the canon of past masters, that had guided her influential work.

--Jan. 10, 1994