Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District
The Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Portions of the content of this page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
Located in Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana, the Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District occupies approximately 150 acres that were platted in 1924. Small in number of resources compared to many of Hilgeman & Schaafs major developments in Fort Wayne's southwest quadrant, the district demonstrates the key principles propounded by Charles Mulford Robinson (1869-1917), urban theorist and University of Illinois professor, in his concepts for creating an "ideal" place to live away from the dirt, noise, and frenzy of the downtown streets. Frank H. Hilgeman was born in Allen County. He participated in the partnership for a number of years as both an investor and an officer. Albert H. Schaaf became an influential member of the community as a businessman and as a civic leader. A graduate of Cornell University, he partnered with Hilgeman for many years. The developers of many prominent subdivisions, Hilgeman & Schaaf designed, developed, and conserved landscape resources throughout the community. Like Hilgeman & Schaaf, other local developers' interpretations of Robinson's ideas are visible in the physical and visual images within the district. Proximity to established traffic flows, the presence of nearby large, local manufacturing facilities such as General Electric, and recreational opportunities afforded by its proximity to Foster Park made the district lots available in the neighborhood highly desirable.
Architectural styles of the residences range from Craftsman Bungalows, two-story Colonial Revival examples to post-WWII Minimal Traditional homes with a smattering of other styles demonstrated. The district is an example of early suburban subdivision design and development during the early decades of the 20th century.
The Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District is associated with events that made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history; i.e., the planning and development of suburban subdivisions in the Fort Wayne community. In fulfillment of the plans for making Fort Wayne an ideal place to live, developers and city officials joined together to create harmonious designs in their respective projects and healthier environments for citizens living within the city. By establishing more parks, designing and building beautiful thoroughfares and boulevards, and supporting the building of subdivisions that demonstrated many of Charles Mulford Robinson's visionary standards/features, these allied forces created an atmosphere within the community for sustained improvement in the quality of life for its residents and for the accomplishment of those tasks necessary to make solid contributions in that direction. The Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District, one of the last subdivision efforts by the firm Hilgeman & Schaaf, incorporates not only aspects of the planning philosophy engendered by Robinson and practiced by local developers, but also the end results of that firm's support of the overall civic planning process evinced throughout the southwest quadrant of the city of Fort Wayne.
The Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District is the embodiment of distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction in its residences built between 1924 and 1963. The homes in the district, many constructed by well-known local building firms such as Hilgeman & Schaaf, C. F. Bruns, George Bennett, H.L. Burt, and R. O. Hines, display the typical and popular architectural styles of the early 20th Century—Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, American Foursquare, and Craftsman and the later style choices, Ranch, Modern, and Minimal Traditional—with a very high level of architectural integrity. The overall effect of a walk through the district transports the traveler back to the building-boom days of the 1920s, the post-World War II time of returning veterans who served, and on to the relatively halcyon days of the 1950s. Although the numbers of homes in this district constitute a relatively small segment of Hilgeman & Schaaf's efforts in the residential housing market of Fort Wayne in the late 1910s-1930s, the tightly knit smaller community's design and physical/architectural essences provide a microcosm of the larger community in which it resides.
The early decades of the twentieth century were a time of great change in the community called Fort Wayne. Concerned citizens sought ways to improve their community and to better take advantage of the benefits, natural and man-made, of their environment. In 1909, the Civic Improvement Association hired Charles Mulford Robinson to evaluate Fort Wayne with the ultimate goal to produce a beautification plan that would enhance the positive aspects of the city and its environs. Robinson, the noted author of The Civic Art, the written word detailing the City Beautiful concept, provided the association with this report with specific recommendations and objectives for the future. Successful civic art, according to Robinson, had to pass two tests—one test judged the urban good gained/provided and the other judged the aesthetic value of the endeavor.
In the pursuit of these objectives, in 1911 the city hired a noted landscape architect in the person of George Kessler to design/articulate these objectives in a concrete and achievable manner. Kessler came up with "The Park and Boulevard System of Fort Wayne" that incorporated existing and proposed parks into a widely dispersed collection of green spaces connected by a system of boulevards and parkways superimposed on existing thoroughfares, new future construction plans, and the extension of in place rights-of-way. These green spaces, old and new, sought to bring a new vitality to the city by providing recreation opportunities and the benefits of a more rural lifestyle to citizens denied those because of the encroachment of a "modern" industrialized way of life. This plan accomplished more than the provision of more parks and a more efficient and attractive transportation system, it was in fact a major component of a much larger plan aimed at the overall growth and development of the city in an orderly manner.
Kessler, like many of his contemporaries, subscribed to the basic tenets of Robinson. His book became the guiding light for a generation of landscape architects/designers and develops focused on the need for planning developments not merely building. Through planning, the design and construction of parks, parkways and boulevards, subdivisions, and other civic requirements could be met while at the same time providing a quality of life "that advances civilization from mere survival." Subdivisions within the city would follow on from other aspects such as the improved transportation infrastructure.
The practical application of Robinson's concept came in the form of a number of design principles demonstrated, to some extent, in most of the subdivisions of the time. These included: deep and consistent set back of homes; fenceless front lawns resulting in open, uncluttered view sheds; placement of utilities along rear lot lines; plantings and small masses of trees to provide variety; parking; a strip of lawn between the sidewalk and the street with staggered shade tree plantings; a wide esplanade or park; curving streets; and finally, terracing or use of natural elevation changes to create variety in the landscape.
As an adjunct to the improved transportation system, city planners and civic leaders expected the new parks envisioned in the recent plan to spark new additions expanding the city limits and to motivate real estate entrepreneurs in their search for land in their vicinities. Foster Park, in the southwest quarter of the city, is an example of this interconnected relationship. As early as 1912, the Fort Wayne Parks Board was striving to meet demands for more parks by asking "wealthy citizens of Fort Wayne to immortalize their names" by purchasing and gifting to the city land for more parks. The two Foster brothers, David N. and Samuel M., both community leaders, responded by acquiring a strip of land along the bank of the St. Mary's River south of the Broadway Street bridge and extending south for about two miles. The purchased totaled 110 acres. Officially known as the David N. and Samuel M. Foster Park, it is commonly known as Foster Park.
Among the many developers in the Fort Wayne arena was the firm of Hilgeman & Schaaf. Frank H. Hilgeman, the senior of the two partners, was born in Allen County in 1873. He participated in the partnership for a number of years as both an investor and an officer. Pursuing a strong desire to become involved in horticultural activities, Frank moved to Arizona in 1919 to take up life as a citrus farmer. He remained an officer in the partnership until 1924; he died in 1944 but Schaaf kept his name associated with the firm throughout its life time. Albert H Schaaf, on the other hand, stayed in Fort Wayne and became an influential member of the community as a businessman and as a civic leader. Born in 1884, Schaaf returned to Fort Wayne in 1906 after his graduation from Cornell University with a degree in mechanical engineering. Subsequent to his partnering with Hilgeman, the firm began to establish itself in the real estate business. Its first development was Arcadia Court in 1912 followed by developments such as Oakdale, Harrison Hill, and its showcase subdivision, Southwood Park in 1917. Hilgeman & Schaaf, the staff and partners, combined their talents in design, development, and conservation of landscape resources to the best advantage of their clients. Many of Robinson's design imperatives can be seen is Hilgeman & Schaafs subdivision planning.
Common to all of Hilgeman & Schaaf developments was the use of restrictions—monetary, physical, and visual to promise an environment in keeping with the City Beautiful concept, while at the same time creating an air of exclusivity that guaranteed new owners a sense of "making the right choice." Monetary restrictions dealt with minimum costs of the residences facing a particular street. In the Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District, for example, "any dwelling that may be erected to front on Boerger Avenue" had to cost a minimum of $7,000.00 and a dwelling fronting on Old Mill Road had to cost a minimum of $8,000.00. Boerger Avenue was the original name shown on plats for today's West Foster Parkway. Minimum cost for a dwelling erected to front on Sheridan Court or Branning Avenue pegged at $5,500.00 and for a Lexington Avenue-facing house it was $4,500.00. The developer for this district and others in the Fort Wayne area would not accept any "shanties" in their collective endeavors. The results of initial minimum restrictions in dwelling costs are apparent on these same streets today. The homes in the district along Old Mill Road, and some of the earliest homes along West Foster Parkway, are markedly upscale from some of the later homes built after the original building period 1925-1938.
Physical restrictions to what new home owners could do on their lots maintained a level of orderliness and openness. Easements between lots, distance restrictions between verandas or patios and their neighbor's house, prohibitions on any other buildings on the residence lot (except for private garages), and the easements along the rear lot lines provided each neighbor with a "feeling" that their rights to privacy could not be encroached upon; conformity in this case was a good thing.
Visual images of streets, parks, and residential developments maintained a priority in the hierarchy of Robinson's concerns for an ideal community. Developers in the Fort Wayne area and especially Hilgeman & Schaaf accepted these concerns and practiced, in their planning, the use of restrictions to enhance the visual image of a project. They also applied Robinson's ideals in a practical manner to the Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District. Plat restrictions in the form of building lines; no construction closer to sidewalks than a fixed distance; easements at the rear lot lines for the installation of utility lines; no front yard fencing to impede sight lines; and a prohibition against cutting down any on-site trees unless absolutely necessary "for the construction of a dwelling house and its appurtenances." Few sheds along any of the streets in the district reinforce the viability of these restrictions and their worth to the overall vision afforded today's owners and visitors. Travel along any of the sidewalks and gain an appreciation of early prohibitions/decisions made by the developers.
The developers of the Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District (known in 1924 as "Park View Terrace and Wiebke's Homestead Addition) put the lots up for sale in July of 1924. Their advertisement noted in a local newspaper that the location "in the most desirable section of Fort Wayne" that "many people have been waiting for" offered home sites attractive to "hundreds of people." The advertisements went on to say that the sale would not start until July 1924 but prospective buyers "could enter the property now" and secure "a tag" which along with a deposit was to be turned into Hilgeman & Schaafs office to reserve the lot. The firm promised a surprise to the buyer by way of the "reasonable" prices on these home sites.
Hilgeman & Schaaf offered lot owners a number of alternatives for building their homes. The firm employed its own architect, Simpson Parkinson, to design many of the homes in its developments. Parkinson and his family lived in a home in the district for a number of years. The Colonial Revival home at 1302 West Foster Parkway bears a striking resemblance to the Hilgeman & Schaaf model home for 1926 which was designed by Parkinson. The firm's building department, under the direction of Leonard C. Smith, supervised the construction of the house and guaranteed new owners to meet all "101 Points of Excellence" (a sales slogan in a local newspaper) in the final product. Actually, Hilgeman & Schaaf proved to be a "one-stop shopping" operation as they also offered to "build a home for you" with "no cash required" in the process. One requirement for this good deal was prior ownership of a lot but even if the lot wasn't fully paid for the advertisement entreated an interested party to come in anyway and "talk it [a new home] over." Other contractors built some of the homes in the district, under the auspices of the firms H .L. Burt and George Bennett.
The proximity to Foster Park served as an inducement to prospective buyers. Having the large green space available to use for recreational activities seven days a week and literally at one's doorstep offered unlimited opportunity to citizens of all ages. Although surely rough to begin with, the park eventually had a large municipal golf course, walking trails, a bridle path along the riverside, access to the river for boating, and formal fields for many purposes. The configuration of the streets in the grid pattern of the district, no through street except Lexington Avenue, gave the sense of a cul-de-sac to the compact cluster of homes. Adding to this sense of a rural setting, the Wiebke farmstead to the east remained undeveloped for many decades and therefore residents of the community in the district actually had green space on its east and west boundaries.
The district demonstrates the growing availability of personal family transportation in the 1920s. Over ninety percent of the homes in the district have a garage, either detached or attached, to house a family automobile. Admittedly, the size of many current automobiles precludes their present-day use but in the 1920s the one-car garage sufficed. Throughout the district are also early examples of the inclusion of a small one-car garage attached to one elevation of the main house. With the improved boulevard system, available public transportation on Broadway and continuing improvements to the entire city's infrastructure, subdivisions such as this presented the hard-working middle-class family with a sense of well-being, in addition to good housing, in a clean and healthier environment while at the same time easing access to the workday world outside the confines of "home."
Demographically, the first residents of the district were clearly middle-to upper-middle-class in their economic and educational background. With a few exceptions—like Simpson Parkinson, one of Hilgeman & Schaaf's architects, or William H. Schannen, a lawyer, or Martin Baade, a real estate owner and developer—it seems that many of the bread earners on these four streets worked as supervisors of departments in many of the large factories like General Electric's in the vicinity or worked as salesmen for downtown businesses. Here and there were brick layers, plumbing wholesalers, or machinists scattered among other home owners. Many of the families like the Schlenkers on West Foster Parkway or the Gellers on Sheridan Court were first owners that lived in their homes for over twenty years. It appears that, overall, those folks that bought early tended to stay in the neighborhood.
The Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District is a wonderful and instructive example of the busy building years of the first decades of the 20th century and greater Fort Wayne's history. Its extremely high degree of architectural integrity, and its visual affirmation of the planning and real estate development philosophy/practices of one of Fort Wayne's most prominent development firms, Hilgeman & Schaaf, make it a special element of the overall community. Early civic leaders and local citizens with a will to make Fort Wayne a better place to live, supported and brought to fruition plans devised by experts in landscape and subdivision design. The Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District is, in company with other subdivisions like Southwood Park, the result of the foresight and determination of those leaders, both in government and in community planning.
† John Warner, Foster Park Neighborhood Historic District, Allen County, IN, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.