Suburban living was a new concept
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
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
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
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
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
--Jan. 10, 1994