Thursday, September 26, 2013

Joel Ninde and the Wildwood Company

by Tom Castaldi

Have you passed by 1012 West Berry nestled into the northwest corner of Berry and Union streets?  Many of us have, but probably never gave a second thought about of this beautiful, Craftsman style, two-story home that was designed by Joel Roberts Ninde founder of the Wildwood Building Company.  Born on December 21, 1873, Joel was an extraordinary woman of the early 1900s who envisioned a new form of domestic architecture based on the notion of the “House of Convenience.”  Designing homes that were “pleasing to the eye, economical, convenient, and efficient” became the hallmark of her work and that of her architect partner, Grace E. Crosby, and the Wildwood Builders Company.

A native of Alabama, Joel was raised in a traditional fashion and had no formal training in architecture.  She met Lee J. Ninde, a Fort Wayne attorney, in Indianapolis and shortly afterward the two were married.  Joel designed her first house for her new husband.  She refused to live in the Ninde family estate of “Wildwood” because of its dark and drafty appearance.  She envisioned a house that was suited for the person who spent the most time in it, the housewife.

Specializing in Craftsman and Colonial Revival style houses, Joel soon was designing houses on a regular basis and her husband gave up his law practice in 1910 to form the Wildwood Builders Company to develop not only “Mrs. Ninde’s Houses,” as they came to be called, but new types of urban neighborhoods altogether.  “The House of Convenience” upon which she based her designs was a house that blended economical building materials and construction methods with durability and good, modest looks.  It was a house in which the housekeeper was the main focus and a place where handsome individualism was deemed available to the modest home as well as to the affluent.  It was an important beginning in the middle-class dream of home ownership as a source of pride, self-identity, and creativity.  One of her homes is the house at 1012 West Berry Street.

In 1914, the Indianapolis Star reported that Mrs. Ninde had built over 300 houses. Joel’s Wildwood Company supported new ideas in the development of neighborhoods and provided the prototype of modern suburbia in its projects in the Wildwood Neighborhood on the far southwest side of Fort Wayne and in the Lafayette Place Neighborhood in the far south side of the city.  The company’s Wildwood Magazine achieved national recognition for its essays on new techniques for addressing burgeoning urban problems.  Joel Ninde died at the age of forty two on March 7, 1916, after having suffered a stroke.

If you pass by her Lindenwood Cemetery’s west-facing burial plot, you’ll see that next to her stone is one of equal size and shape that marks the resting place of her husband Lee who died in 1953.  On her other side is a smaller stone that has the inscription: “Infant dau. of Lee and Joel R. Ninde – Died May 22, 1906.”

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history

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