Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fort Wayne's Most Famous Female Architect

We’re side tracking a little from our plan to relate ways for your family to study history based upon your family’s story to tell you about a Fort Wayne architect who changed the face of  housing in our community.

Joel Roberts Ninde was a woman who disliked the lack the “curb appeal” in many of the houses of her day. “Whole blocks with houses hammered together from one dismal plan, made bleak the lives of their inmates, dwarfed ambition and blighted spiritual growth,” was the assessment of early 1900s architecture in Fort Wayne from a story in Wildwood Magazine in the summer of 1916.

“The great majority of people tenaciously clung to the idea that a home that cost less than $5,000 must necessarily be a cheap home—a home to be built on a forty-foot lot by a stereotyped plan.”

Mrs. Ninde never set out to be an architect. Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1874, she married Lee J. Ninde, an attorney who eventually gave up his law practice to help his wife form the Wildwood Builders Company in 1910. In 1914, they founded Wildwood Magazine, a forum for city planning throughout the United States, according to Roseann Coomer, a former Education Director for the Historical Society.

Mrs. Ninde’s foray into architecture was pure accident. Disliking most of the houses that she saw, and not wanting to move into her father-in-law’s house because she saw it as dark and oppressive, she designed her own. It was so well liked that she and her husband sold it and she designed another home, only to sell that one also. This continued on until she and her husband decided to form their company.

“It came to pass in time that the whole city was talking of ‘Mrs. Ninde’s houses,’ and the neighborhood in which they had been constructed was so individually attractive, as distinguished from other neighborhoods of moderate priced houses, that the demand for her services in house planning began to monopolize her whole endeavor,” according to the 1916 summer issue of Wildwood Magazine.

Coomer adds that, “Her aesthetic sense led her to design houses to fit the natural setting in an area. Thus, the neighborhood became part of the house and the house became part of the neighborhood.”

Mrs. Ninde had no formal training as an architect. Rather she was an artist who saw the need for homes that “take into account …the needs of the daily life of a family. While the interiors are related to the normal facts of life, the exteriors are always of an interesting simplicity, that seem indeed the ‘outward expression of an inward grace.’”

Her houses were built with the “maximum of comfort with the minimum of cost.”
“A living room is made to seem a place to live in…The dining rooms are suited to dining and the bed rooms are comfortable and airy. The kitchens are planned with the remembrance that few of us can keep a chef, though all of us eat dinners.

“It comes as a natural result that a thinking woman should plan rooms that would conserve the ‘mother and daughter power’ of the household.” Quotes from The Story of Wildwood.

Wildwood Builders was formally established in 1910. Stockholders were selected who had backgrounds in merchandising, law, real estate and banking. According to The Story of Wildwood,  “The individual characters constituted a guarantee of successful management and fair dealing.”

A draftsman was then hired and laborers as well as carpenters. Thirty-nine houses were built in two years. To facilitate better pricing of materials, Wildwood Lumber Co. was organized so that building supplies could be purchased at wholesale and then resold to the building company, assuring that houses could be built for the best price possible.

Mrs. Ninde built her houses in what is now the South Wayne Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

“Most of the area which comprises the South Wayne Historic District was once part of an 80 acre tract operated as a county farm between 1848 and 1853. When the farm was divided and sold, a few houses were built but the area remained rural in character. One of the best known of the country estates built in the area was that of Judge Lindley M. Ninde, who in the 1860's, built an impressive house known as "Wildwood" on Fairfield….
“The establishment of the Packard Piano and Organ Company on Fairfield Avenue in 1872, led to increased development and population growth in the area. Eventually a movement was formed to incorporate South Wayne as a town. After a lengthy court battle with the City of Fort Wayne, which wanted to annex the area, the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of South Wayne and the town was incorporated in 1889.
“Fort Wayne eventually succeeded in annexing South Wayne in 1894, bringing with it streetcar lines, utilities, and a new school. The annexation, coupled with growing industrial development, led to increased residential interest.
“During the early 20th century Fort Wayne began to experience unprecedented growth, becoming one of the three largest cities in Indiana. As the city grew more dense and industrialized, and as transportation options broadened, those who could afford to moved to new "suburban" neighborhoods with larger, landscaped lots. In the South Wayne district, 80% of the homes were constructed between about 1910 and 1920 and another 15% constructed between 1920 and 1930. Craftsman, Colonial Revival, and American Foursquare are the dominant architectural styles. Consistency among the houses in terms of style, scale, materials, setback, and other character-defining features creates a pleasing rhythm along the district's streets.
“… Other notable early residents include: Guy Mahurin, a prominent local architect who resided at 927 W. Wildwood; Charles Worden, a lawyer, banker, and Civic Improvement Association president who lived at 1022 W. Wildwood; Charles Lane, a Fort Wayne newspaper man and Commercial Club director who was active in state and national politics and resided at 917 W. Wildwood; and Senator Homer Capehart who located his phonograph company in Ft. Wayne in 1929, and lived at 709 Packard Avenue.”
Mrs. Ninde died of a stroke at the age of 42 but her work lives on in the beautiful homes and neighborhoods she designed. With her friend Grace E. Crosby, she developed a design and decorating firm that played a major role in the development of housing south of downtown.
“Although examples of her work ranging from modest cottages to large brick homes survive in various parts of the city, the South Wayne Historic District contains the largest concentration of Ninde's work. The following list comprises known Ninde houses within the district: 701, 702, 706, 710, 722, 726, 810, 814, 818, 902, 912, 922, 926, 1002, 1018, and 1025 Wildwood Avenue and 3131 South Wayne Avenue.”
If you’ve never driven through this part of Fort Wayne, we encourage you to do so. The architecture is beautiful and it is truly a look at days gone by in Fort Wayne.
In the Wildwood Magazine published the summer after Mrs. Ninde’s death on March 7, 1916, editors of the magazine paid tribute to their co-founder.
She established…”a standard to which all building companies were obliged to conform and which individual builders accepted as the desirable thing….
“…while a technical education is a most desirable asset, its lack is not an insurmountable obstacle in the path of endeavor. It proves that genius, if it asserts itself, will win recognition and approval under any circumstances, and that those with a message are remiss if they withhold it from the world.
“The zeal, the earnestness and the conscientious devotion which she brought into her labors here, she imparted to her associates, and the force of her fine example endures as a beneficent inspiration and a most helpful influence.”

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