The Uses of Real Estate

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by Steve Ebinger

When set next to Erector Sets, his 1908 Olympic Gold Medal, and the big game safaris which provided a major collection of specimens for Yale's distinguished Peabody Museum of Natural History, it is hard to muster enthusiasm for land development as a fascinating and important part of A. C. Gilbert's life. Yet next to the A. C. Gilbert Company, land development was his largest and longest lasting enterprise. Even the title of his autobiography, The Man Who Lives in Paradise, refers to this activity. Like all the other accomplishments mentioned in his autobiography, the business aspects of this enterprise are dismissed in favor of discussing its value as a hobby. (Gilbert, The Man Who Lives in Paradise ) Yet, the enterprise also served a number of secondary and symbiotic purposes in Gilbert's life and business affairs. This article focuses on the development of five neighborhoods: Maraldene/Ridge Road, Old Orchard Road, Kent Drive/Salem Drive, Gilbert Avenue in Branford, and Paradise Dunbar Hill in Hamden. Each of these properties had a slightly different role in augmenting A. C. Gilbert's business, personal, and community life, and gives insight into American town planning between 1920 and 1960.

In 1921 A. C. Gilbert and his wife Mary, in cooperation with Fred Williams and his wife, bought roughly 40 acres of land on the west side of Ridge Road in North Haven, CT. The Gilberts immediately began construction on a dream home. This estate would come to be called Maraldene and cover about five acres. A. C. Gilbert was interested in Elizabethan forms and style at this time and the architecture of Maraldene reflected this English bias. However, Maraldene is more than architecture it is an entire environment. Gilbert quickly added the trappings of the English aristocracy to the property including a golf course, swimming pool, a formal garden, greenhouse, kennels and a caretaker's residence. At the same time, he created a fifteen-foot waterfall, several small ponds for fishing, and a log cabin. The American frontier and romantic naturalism were very important motifs in Gilbert's life and were clearly the stronger influence. In 1952, with the children grown and gone, the Gilberts finally left Maraldene. They moved to another house built by Gilbert which he called Mountain View. The structure has far more in common with log cabins than with baronial estates.

In 1923 Gilbert bought out the Williams' share of the Ridge Road land and in 1927 bought an additional tract of land on the other side of Ridge Road. Having thus buffered his estate Gilbert would spend the next twenty years developing this buffer zone. His reasons for doing this are plainly stated in his autobiography: "I wanted to do all I could to make sure the neighborhood developed into one of fine houses" (Gilbert, Man Who Lives in Paradise, 1954, pg. 203).

His mechanism for protecting both the style and quality of his new neighborhood was with deed restrictions when the subdivided building lots were sold. The 1931 transfer of the land next door to Maraldene to Walter J. Wohlenberg shows a typical restriction:

Said premises are conveyed subject to the following restrictions, namely: That said premises shall be used for residential purposes only;that no building other than a one family dwelling house and a private garage appurtenant thereto shall be constructed and erected thereon; that the first cost of such one family dwelling house shall not be less than Twenty Thousand Dollars; that the foundation walls of such dwelling house and private garage appurtenant thereto shall not be less than one hundred feet from the westerly line of said Ridge Road, nor less than twenty-five feet from the above described boundary line; that no billboards or fences shall be erected on said above described premises; that nothing herein shall prevent the construction and erection of a private garage attached to, detached from or incorporated in such dwelling house.

Deed restrictions of this type were not common at this time, but they are certainly not unheard of, especially in the years before Connecticut towns had well-defined zoning regulations. Gilbert intended to sell these lots to wealthy and/or notable persons who, he felt, shared his vision of an ideal neighborhood. In fact, his lawyer, his architect, relatives, and the North Haven Town Clerk were among those who bought land from Gilbert, either around Ridge Road or in Gilbert's second development on Old Orchard Road.

In 1933 Gilbert began selling lots on his next neighborhood. This development had been an orchard near his Maraldene property. Gilbert purchased it, put a road through (originally named Maraldene Drive but quickly renamed Old Orchard Road), and subdivided it into twelve 150 by 250 foot lots. Gilbert began building houses on the lots. at the rate of one or two per year, selling them off as they were completed. Gilbert deputized the legalities of the sales to his realtor, Mabel B. Seabury. Like at Maraldene, Gilbert created an atmosphere for his development that went beyond architecture. At each end of the road is an "olde English" style punched metal sign announcing Old Orchard Road. The road itself was and still is divided by a planted center median. Shrubs and spruces were planted or encouraged and both the median and the properties were still dotted with the fruit trees of the former orchard from which the neighborhood was made. The residences are a mix of styles and materials common to residential architecture of the 1930s. There is no evidence of what effect A. C. had on the design and construction of these buildings. As on Ridge Road, the look of the street was not left to chance; there were deed restrictions:

Said premises are conveyed subject to the following restrictions which are imposed thereon for the benefit of the remaining premises of said grantor; that said premises shall be used for residential purposes only; that only one family dwelling house shall be erected on said land, the plans of which shall be approved in writing by said grantor; that the main line of any building erected thereon shall be placed and set back not less than 75 feet from the southerly line of Old Orchard Road, and no building or portion thereof shall be erected within 15 feet of the easterly and westerly lines; nothing herein contained shall be construed so as to prevent the erection of a private garage on said land for the use of the occupants of said dwelling; no chickens shall be kept or maintained on said premises. Said grantor reserves the right at any time to make such changes or modifications on restrictions in deeds of other lots in the tract of which the above described premises are a part, as in his judgment will best promote the development of said tract of land into a highly desirable residential section.

Other than the need to specify that chickens are unwelcome, there are no surprises here. The restrictions go out of their way to allow a garage .. The highly desirable residential section Gilbert hoped to create was to be primarily accessed by automobile.

Suburbs, like many other aspects of city planning, do not have a specific starting year by which we can say they were invented. In some form they extend back into Roman times. However, in the 1920s, the United States was in a period of unprecedented growth in suburban development and suburban culture. Suburban growth was partially made possible by a growing support infrastructure of affordable automobiles, interurban rail lines, and mads. However, the real cause can be tied to culture. A. C. Gilbert, like most Americans, believed that the ownership of land and a house was an essential comfort which all Americans should attain (Wentling, Designing a Place Called Home, 1995, pg. 20).

Most architects ignored suburbs as a suitable palette for their talents. Some, like Le Corbusier, rejected them. But a few, like Frank Lloyd Wright, along with some politicians, and assorted land speculators, saw in this demographic shift a chance to create a built environment that could take full advantage of the new technological age (Stern and Massengal, The Anglo-American Suburb, 1981, pg. 4). From the vision of these few came a wide variety of experimental communities which sought to make better use of the land and technology. The most successful form was what is so commonly seen today: single family houses arranged along streets. Maraldene and the Old Orchard Road development followed this model. The inherent design of A. C. Gilbert's real estate "hobby" developments was well in tune with an important change in American demographics.

In the late Thirties, Gilbert split out a portion of the land surrounding the Maraldene Estate and rounded out some of the salients by purchasing land from Spring Glen Associates. From the resulting tract of land he created his third residential neighborhood along Kent Road and Salem Drive. While their deed restrictions are little different than the Orchard Road houses, these houses are smaller and have smaller plots, roughly 100 by 150 feet. This was in keeping with the layout of the adjoining developments. Perhaps because they are smaller and have less yard, Gilbert felt the need to restrict motor traffic. His autobiography suggests a desire for visual seclusion of the neighborhood, but the curves and dead end streets assure that these two connected roads are not a shortcut between Skiff Street and Ridgewood Ave. The building and populating of this neighborhood was interrupted by the second world war and not completed until the 1950s.

According to his autobiography Gilbert discovered the area for his fourth development in the town of Hamden CT, immediately north of New Haven while looking for mountain laurel to plant at Maraldene. In 1930, Gilbert bought a number of tracts of land totalling about 600 acres which would become the Paradise Nature Preserve. The land was bordered on one side by Paradise Road, from which the preserve gets its name. Gilbert widened and improved this road and extended Dunbar Hill Road. The preserve was originally meant as a place for Gilbert to hunt with like-minded friends. To do so required development and maintenance of game. Deer, ducks, and pheasant were raised and cared for by a gamekeeper. The watercourses were adapted to support trout. However, the development of the property did not stop there. Gilbert added a dairy farm, and also built up the Laurel Hills development or what is presently known as the Dunbar Hill neighborhood.

By 1947 Gilbert had added a park and country club for his employees on the preserve. This was a fringe benefit of which no other employer in the region could boast. Nor was this sort of fringe benefit a new policy for Gilbert. By the beginning of WWII, employees were referred to as co-workers. Co-workers enjoyed clear rules of conduct and conflict resolution within the plant and were treated well not only in pay, but also by benefits in addition to pay. A range of sponsored employee activities built morale, and, when spread amongst the employees were cost effective. The Paradise Park Country Club was perhaps the crowning benefit of all.

It is not likely that Paradise was bought with this eventual end in mind. Two factors worked together to bring about an employee club. First was the development of the other uses of the land with room to spare. The other was the onset of WWII, which paralyzed Gilbert's neighborhood building activities. Gilbert takes great pride in his autobiography to point out how much of the physical labor of making Paradise Park was done himself with a small team of workers. Throughout the war he had little choice. The project no doubt released some of the stress caused by the retooling for war production.

The unveiling of the park to his employees in 1947 became the park's undoing. The zoning restrictions on the area did not allow for "private" country clubs, only "community" ones. A. C. Gilbert was forced to transfer the property into the care of a community organization in order for it to be used at all.

For the A. C. Gilbert Company, the expansions that went with WWII included turning an existing warehouse off of Route 1 in Branford into a production facility. For Gilbert as a planner, residential add-ons by this point had become a habit. The Branford plant is bordered on one side by six Gilbert-built residences. Two of these were in place by 1947, but the other four were not built and sold off until 1955. These lots are different from the first-class neighborhoods of Maraldene and Paradise. This is housing on small 70 by 100 ft. lots. They are meant to be affordable and lived in by co-workers who worked at the Branford facility. This example of worker housing is notable for its nonchalance. There is no company store, little in the way of special financing, nor any attempt to make a Gilbert "town" out of it. Nor is there a clause on the deed reverting the property back to company control if vacated. This lack of control can be explained away on very practical terms. First, the workforce wasn't big enough to make a full community. Second, there was nothing to be gained by exerting control over labor. Third, housing may have been short, but it was far from nonexistant. Most employees would choose their housing based on other considerations than proximity to the plant. Finally, Gilbert's editorials in the employee newsletter during 1954 and 1955 consistantly rail against the inefficiencies of communism. It seems unlikely he would create his own miniature socialist system

Land development served a number of secondary and symbiotic purposes in Gilbert's life and business affairs. Gilbert himself always emphasized its hobby value. Building neighborhoods was not only engaging and profitable, it was controllable. Gilbert could work on as many or as few residences as he had time.

The other benefit of this hobby was that it accomplished other goals. The Maraldene/Ridge Road neighborhood was developed as a "first class" neighborhood and buffer zone against unsympathetic development. At some level all of Gilbert's residential development serves that role. Old Orchard Road extends the Ridge Road neighborhood. Kent Road and Salem Drive buffer Maraldene from the other side. Even the residences around Paradise help protect the game preserve by creating a barrier of private, supervised property.

Gilbert's land development also served to benefit his employees. Paradise Park and Branford specifically catered to his employees with whom he needed to maintain his status as benefactor.

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