Winnie-the-Pooh had his “Hundred Acre Wood”. Robin Hood had Sherwood Forest. I had “The Park”. Despite its’ commonplace nickname, The Park was an enchanted land for us kids. Back then, I assumed every kid had woods, fields, and friends right outside his back door as a personal playground. Now, I know our little neighborhood was relatively rare and innovative in both design and execution.
Middle Class Estates
In the mid-50′s Harley Danforth mapped out 15 half-acre home sites, shaped by the terrain, encircling a 5 acre park owned in common. In 1960 my parents bought a modest cedar sided home on a dark, woodsy lot overlooking the sunny expansive meadow of “The Park”. For the price of a single lot, we enjoyed many benefits of a large estate.
The annual cost of that common space? in 1960–about $25 (plus mowing labor) per member. In 2010–about $250. The concept seems so simple, so affordable, so practical, so obvious; yet it’s almost unheard of. Why? Because most developers blindly maximize profits by leveling the land and platting dense grids. Most buyers apparently don’t know any better.
Frank Lloyd Wright would have been proud of Harley’s design. Wright, America’s most famous architect, envisioned simple, affordable, modern houses that blended in with the natural landscape. He sketched out neighborhoods in which houses opened up away from the street onto open spaces for gardening, recreation and general peace and quiet.
A Tragic History
Making 25 cents an hour, a young Harley labored to cut the tough field grass using a push mower. As the dull contraption bounced over pocket gopher mounds and stalks of milkweed, he paused to remind himself that Mr. Williams paid him by the hour, not by the job. Looking North toward Long Lake, he could see the charred remains of his employer’s former home-site. Looking South, he saw the depressed and devastated Mr. and Mrs. Williams sitting in front of the simple servant’s cottage they now called home. They had tumbled a long way down.
One year prior, Williams, the wealthy owner of a successful coal and dock company based in St. Paul and Superior, owned a magnificent home on Summit Avenue and a summer home on Long Lake. Fighting the economic downturn of the ’30s, he planned to build on White Bear Lake’s peninsula. Then tragedy struck. While clearing stumps with dynamite, he lost his right hand and his eyesight. Retreating to their lake home, another tragedy struck. The house on Long Lake burned to the ground started by a clothes iron.
To me, the image of Mr. Williams in his formal black suit and his wife in her formal dress and parasol walking the grounds is ethereal and haunting. Had I known this story as a kid, I’m sure I would have gazed out onto The Park on dark foggy nights and imagined a weary woman in a freshly ironed white gown walking around the site of her burned down home.
More Than a Two-Bit Idea
With a growing family, Harley and his wife, Jo, quickly outgrew their house on Maple Street. Having never forgotten the land he had mowed (and cursed) years before, he imagined raising his family on the hill overlooking Long Lake. He decided to approach the current owner, a man named Rosen, who said, “Talk to my lawyer.” Harley did and acquired one acre on Long Lake just west of the old Williams homestead.
Seeing a good thing, a stranger approached Harley with the desire to build an ugly “basement house” next door. Knowing the kind of neighborhood he did notwant, Harley formed his vision. He decided to buy the whole parcel and do it right. Rosen’s refrain was the familiar, “Talk to my lawyer.” Harley did and got a price, then he talked to a banker and got a loan.
Using ads in the Sunday paper, Harley wisely sold lots to individuals, not developers. Within a few years, most were sold and unique homes sprouted up quickly as did the families within them. Just his luck, Harley (with the help of his new neighbors and eventually his kids) would be mowing that very same patch of grass for generations to come.
Surprisingly rare was a neighborhood like ours with affordable homes surrounding commonly owned natural space. Of course, regular homes often surround a public park, and expensive homes often have big private lots, but rarely do neighbors share private space. As a result, many people have lots of neighbors but no open space to enjoy; many people have lots of private space but few neighbors to enjoy it with.
The Park didn’t feel private and exclusive, but it wasn’t open to just anyone (nor was it run by a government body). It wasn’t so big that a 5 year old would get lost, but it felt big enough that I remember (as a kindergartner) taking a small backpack that contained a lunch and a thermos, on a “hiking” trip. The Park was about half woods and half open, some mowed and some not.
Trails were permanently etched through the woods and bases were worn through the field grass. Walking to a friend’s house through the woods felt like the beginning of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, very unlike the scheduled “play dates” of today’s kids. An open wooden structure with a roof (the playhouse) was the scene for many childhood games and intense dramas, especially on a rainy day when we could still escape to the outdoors.