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21Country: How Joel Roberts Ninde broke barriers for female architects, left behind legacy in Fort Wayne

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - If you ask homeowners in the South Wayne Historic District what they value about the neighborhood, their answers all have similarities.

Beth Stutzman has lived on West Wildwood Avenue for seven years.

“It’s crazy to think over the last 100 years, what all has happened in here,” she told us, “and the history that’s been made - and that we get to own a piece of history!”

Thad Gerardot lives several homes down.

“As soon as we walked in, we fell in love with it, and we knew we wanted to buy it,” he said, “there’s a lot of similarities between the homes, but every home is unique in its own way.”

Jill Park loved the neighborhood too.

“It just has so much history behind it,” she said, “it’s super family oriented, so when you go out walking, you’re always going to see kids out playing, and families walking their dogs.”

All three homeowners were among dozens in the area, whose houses were designed by Joel Roberts Ninde, and built by the construction firm her husband Lee established.

We spoke to ARCH’s executive director, Connie Haas Zuber, who shared how Ninde broke barriers for women in the early 1900’s.

“She is one of the many remarkable women of this time period in America,” she told us.

ARCH (Architecture and Community Heritage) research revealed after marrying attorney Lee Ninde in Indianapolis, Joel moved to her new husband’s hometown of Fort Wayne.

Because of her unhappiness with the in-law’s home, described as “dark and drafty”, she convinced her husband to build the design of her dream home.

“Other people saw it, and they loved it, and they ended up getting bought out from under them. So, she designed and built another one. Same thing happened!” Haas Zuber explained, “these houses were different from the either the mansions that well-to-do people were living in, or the very plain and unappealing worker homes.”

In 1910, Lee Ninde quit his job to form the “Wildwood Builders Company”.

Joel Roberts Ninde’s work would be later published and widely distributed across the nation in the company's magazine.

“It was that much of an explosion of interest, and the topic of Mrs. Ninde houses became a thing,” Haas Zuber said, “her design success to raising the bar for all the home building companies here in the Fort Wayne area, so that pretty soon everybody was building new homes to these kind of standards.”

Ninde would later partner with another female architect, Grace Crosby.

They would later go on to design many of the styles of homes seen throughout parts of Fort Wayne, best described as “A House of Convenience”.

Homes were similar, but made with different qualities of materials to keep them at affordable price points for families of different incomes.

“You can just go around and think stylistically when you see a dutch Colonial house, I think of her,” she continued, “when I see side porches I think of her. When I see stucco, I think of her in that era of houses. Because those were her trademarks.”

Together, Ninde and Crosby were trailblazers in their career.

“The time that she was alive and working, was a time that suffragettes were working in many spheres of life. Because she was lucky enough to have a husband that supported her, and built a company supporting her in her work,” Haas Zuber explained, “she got to express her creative abilities and to see them come to life on the landscape in a way that a lot of women who had not only had skills… did not.”

Their work caught the attention of journalists in Indianapolis, who reported they had built over 300 homes in just a few years.

Unfortunately, Ninde died suddenly in 1916 of a stroke.

But her legacy remains today.

“Her interest and ability and salesmanship and understanding of what kind of homes were right homes for the times,” Haas Zuber said, “matched perfectly for the marketplace here… and whoosh! It took off.”

In addition to the South Wayne Historic District, Ninde also influenced the Wildwood Park neighborhood.

Jill Park, moved from Ninde’s former home on 902 West Wildwood, to Wildwood Park late last year - all because of her respect and interest in the architect.

“Instantly, when you walk in the door people would immediately start talking about the house, and then to be able to tell the history of it was really fun,” she said, “I grew up in a world where if I wanted to be an architect, I never thought twice about it - which is amazing because, it’s because of women like that, that made that possible for me and my daughter.”

Thad Gerardot’s home was built after Ninde’s death, using her designs.

He plans to still live in his house on West Wildwood, when the property turns 100 in the next couple years.

Beth Stutzman is an interior designer, and says many of Ninde’s homes will never be unappealing, “the exterior is a mix of styles… Joel liked to do that. But its a classic home… it will stay in style forever.”

You can find more information on Joel Roberts Ninde and Grace Crosby on ARCH’s website.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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