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There’s Still a Farm at Indiana Development

Indiana’s Tryon Farm is alternative to sprawl

December 12, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Tryon Farm is a family enterprise, conceived by Chicago-based architect Edward J. Noonan and his wife Eve Noonan, a marketing specialist. The Noonans manage and gain revenue from virtually every aspect of ownership, architectural design, financing, land management, and home construction.
The story of American housing development in the Midwest and every other part of the nation is told in lyrical names — Golden Meadows, Redgrove Orchards, Wildwood Acres — that are the usually the sole remnant of what was wiped off the land once the sewers, roads, and houses were built.

That is not true, however, at the 170-acre Tryon Farm, an environmentally-sensitive farm-based development in northwest Indiana that takes advantage of the growing market demand in the Middle West and elsewhere for community, kinship, and distinctive homes amidst wide open natural spaces. Tryon Farm, which lies at the eastern edge of Michigan City, a rust-belt town experiencing an economic revival, is also distinguished by a novel business plan that is satisfied with a much slower home construction and sales pace than conventional subdivisions.

 Tryon Farm is a family enterprise, conceived by Chicago-based architect Edward J. Noonan and his wife Eve Noonan, a marketing specialist. The Noonans manage and gain revenue from virtually every aspect of ownership, architectural design, financing, land management, and home construction. Their oldest son David, a lawyer and developer in New York, and his wife Susan, who founded and manages an 80-person public relations firm, also are partners."We’re trying to weld all aspects of development together," said Mr. Noonan, a third generation Chicago architect whose father, T. Clifford Noonan, a member of the famed firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, was the chief architect for the State Department building in Washington. "It seemed to me that developers were always treating architects like children, sending them from the room when they talked about money. My response has always been well if they can go to the bank, so can I."

So far, it’s working. In 1990, the Noonans invested $510,000 and bought one of the last farms within Michigan City’s boundary, vowing to honor as much of its agricultural character and heritage as they dared. More than a decade later, there is a farm still at Tryon Farm, along with a barn that houses livestock, working farm fields, thick forests, restored wildflower meadows, acres of wetlands, and permanently protected open spaces. This natural bounty — most of which has existed since Tryon Farm was first cut from the Indiana woods 141 years ago by a family of the same name — serves as a featured amenity just as fairways in golf developments or waterfront in lakeside units.

"We call this a rehab job," said Eve Noonan, a tall, blonde, and voluble woman who is obviously lavishing the same reservoirs of energy to this family project that she once devoted to raising her five children.. "It was a dairy farm that for a century was a terrific place to live. It’s still a farm. The original farmstead is here. The original barns and outbuildings are here. What we’ve tried to do is fit the homes into the landscape without intruding."

The design of Tryon Farm’s master plan mimics the Middle West landscape of the 19th century when prairie farmsteads were surrounded by numerous outbuildings. The Noonans cluster 8 to 20 homes close together in eight "settlements, " each separated from the other by expanses of field, woods, or meadows. More than 120 of the farm’s 170 acres are permanently off limits to construction. Buyers own their own homes and a small skirt of land around the building, but the rest of the land is shared in common ownership for which residents pay a roughly $90 monthly fee to a homeowners association. Trails wind under the forest canopy and through the meadows, and on warm days the place feels much more like summer camp than a housing development.

One of Tryon Farm’s settlements, located near the original farmstead, is completed and a second in thick hardwoods is underway. Prices range from $100,000 for 650 square foot lodges to $400,000 for 2,400 square foot, four-bedroom homes. So far 25 homes have sold, including eight this year. Tryon Farm, which was approved under the planned unit development provision of Michigan City’s zoning code, is allowed 150 homes on the property. The Noonans, who have invested $1.5 million to date, anticipate that it will take ten more years to complete Tryon Farm and when fully built out will be valued at $40 million.

Those who live at Tryon Farm say they love it. One resident is Paula Hardin, a teacher and author from Chicago, a 65-minute car ride or 80-minute train ride away, from a station that is a five-minute drive from Tryon Farm. Ms. Hardin bought her cozy home along the edge of a restored prairie two years ago. From the outside, Ms. Hardin’s home and the others in the Farmstead Settlement look like traditional Middle West farmhouses. The interiors, though, are airy, light-filled, and often distinguished by dramatic two-story living rooms, lofts, and balconies. Some have flying bridges that serve as second floor walkways linking bedrooms on one side of the home to the other. Ms. Hardin quickly learned that her guests naturally gravitated at night to her home’s outdoor deck. "They’d bring out their sleeping bags and lie there for hours watching the stars," said Ms. Hardin. "We don’t have street lights here so we can really see the stars."

At Tryon Farm, homeowners can also see goats, herds of deer in the meadows, alfalfa in working fields, and rare green herons prancing stoically in restored wetlands.

"It’s not that we have some ideology or philosophy," she said. "People who live here like the simplicity of nature. There are professors here, artists, professional people, families who don’t have to have a swimming pool or a golf course."

Such conservation-minded developments, which in the Midwest include Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, and Fields of St. Croix in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, gather homes, streets, and parks in much closer proximity while leaving a substantial portion of the land undeveloped and often wild. Buyers say they are also attracted by the opportunity to establish more traditional neighborhood relationships for themselves and their children than they can develop in the anonymity of conventional and sprawling large-lot subdivisions.

More than a decade after Ed and Eve Noonan invested $510,000 on the land and farm buildings, there is a farm still at Tryon Farm. There's also beautiful indoor spaces like this one.  Tryon Farm, though, goes several steps further than other alternative housing developments in encouraging both fealty to nature and community through its allegiance to environmental values, care for the land, and the attention to detail in the design of the homes and the master plan. The development’s design was produced by Chicago Associates Planners and Architects, Mr. Noonan’s eight-member architecture firm. Mr. Noonan, who credits his partner Thomas Forman with conceiving the site’s land plan and another partner, Michael Newman, for overseeing architectural details, describes the design goal as "understanding the whole relationship between privacy and community."

He added: "Modern subdivisions aim everything at the big spaces inside — fancy kitchens, bigger bathrooms — and the private backyard. The sequence of arriving at a modern subdivision home is to drive into the garage and walk directly into the house. There is very little chance of connecting with your neighbor.

"What we’re trying to do here is to educate ourselves and others to understand what you really need to live well in a country setting."

Even though homes are close together, Mr. Noonan ensured privacy by designing the windows of Tryon Farm’s homes to overlook the open fields and not the neighbors. Most houses have lovely terraces and gardens enclosed by fences.

But to encourage neighbors to get to know each other, Tryon Farm established a community garden, and cars are parked in a common area near a row of mailboxes. That means neighbors coming and going will have the chance to run into each other.

There are also features of the development that the most ardent environmentalist would admire. One of the most ambitious is that wastewater from homes is treated not in septic systems or carried away in a city sewer but cleansed in a series of constructed wetlands that also serve as habitat for wading birds that flock to the farm. The well-understood technology, which deploys plants to absorb nutrients, has been used successfully to treat wastewater in Arcata, California and many other communities. There is no smell at all and water emerges thoroughly cleaned of contaminants and is used to irrigate the alfalfa. By developing the natural system, the Noonans also avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in the cost of financing an expensive city sewer connection.

Along with the homeowners, some of Tryon Farm’s most enthusiastic supporters are officials in Michigan City’s municipal government. "Rather than sprawl, they’ve got a development that keeps most of the land in open space," said Joseph Siegel, the city’s zoning administrator. "Everything they’ve got going out there is positive. There’s a farm atmosphere. There are good, quality-constructed homes and nice architectural design. They’ve heightened the mark and set a standard for development here that hopefully others will follow."

Keith Schneider, a nationally known environmental journalist, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article was published by the New York Times on November 25, 2001. For more of the Institute’s first-rate environmental journalism see: www.mlui.org.
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