As he wanders through the grassy field that wraps up close to his sedum-roofed home, Edward Noonan ’53 points to where the field intersects with a wood grove. “That’s where the action is,” he says, “because that’s where the water is. The woods are pushing; the field is pushing back. . . . One is always trying to overtake the other. But there’s a place for them both here.”
The architect and his wife, Eve, are the owners (along with their son David and his wife, Susan ), creators and designers of Tryon Farm, a conservation community in Michigan City, Indiana, built in the late 1990s. Originally a dairy farm, the 170-acre property features 65 environmentally sensitive homes, ranging in size from 700 to 2,000 square feet, with room for 85 more. Although there’s naught a spec home in sight, the Noonans and many other residents, most from the Chicago area, will agreeably open their doors to the curious potential buyer.
A community garden, goats and beehives have joined the original barn and the Tryon farmhouse, now converted to a bed and breakfast. Chickens roam the barnyard, and at night no lights burn on the narrow roads. Perhaps the most stunning feature of the community, say the Noonans, is its 120 acres of protected land that will never be developed.
With help from the Shirley Heinze Land Trust, the couple has worked to preserve large open spaces of the land while restoring some of its original features. Once drained for farming purposes, the property now houses ponds and wetlands, along with woods and dunes. To preserve the land’s farming heritage, some open fields were retained, allowing local farmers to plant alfalfa for winter crops or bring in dairy cows for grazing. “We hope we can be a model for other farm owners,” Ed says.
The development, which sits about a mile from Lake Michigan, is barely noticeable from the road. Soft rolling fields and a swath of tall grass prairie substitute for conspicuous signage. “People ask, ‘When are you going to start construction?’ They don’t understand why the field isn’t full of houses,” Ed says. The reason, say the Noonans, is multilayered and emerges from an intermingling of architectural philosophy, personal faith and love of the natural world.
Ed’s father and grandfather both had careers in large architectural firms; his father, Cliff Noonan ’24, as a vice president at Chicago’s Graham Anderson Probst and White. But Ed says he felt called to something different: “I wanted the adventure of putting things together that I could touch. The point of view . . . was how life was applied to architecture, not the reverse.” That mindset prevails for him today.
A longtime proponent of rehabilitating old, unused buildings, Ed says he’s glad to see the recent revival of cities and the reuse of their structures. During his 45 years at his own Chicago architectural firm, CAPA, he designed public housing, factories, churches and new and reclaimed single-family homes. His rehabilitation work included the conversion of two schools, one into an art center and the other into a city hall.
However appealing the form, an architectural design isn’t successful, Ed says, unless its use is also considered. A bench, for instance, can become more than a visual element or sculpture if placed thoughtfully. Potentially, it can call someone to a moment of solitude or provide an opportunity for conversation.
Similarly, Eve mentions development patterns and building styles found in many suburbs that discourage human interaction. “The garage is the front door,” adds Ed. “People go in and only come out to go to the mailbox. . . . There’s no easy connection.”
Countering that trend, most Tryon homes don’t have garages. A car barn, a large yet stylish open shelter, prevents people from being so “car conscious,” says Eve. It also keeps down noise and provides opportunities for getting to know neighbors and nature alike. At night, residents use flashlights to trek from car to home, which gives them a chance to notice the night sky.
While Tryon offers plenty of “points of natural intersection,” says Eve, she realizes privacy is also vital to a healthy community. Many homes feature courtyards or gardens, or the land is sloped or rolled in such a way that residents don’t feel on display.
Through Tryon, the Noonans believe they are making a social statement by putting forward another model for living. Houses are smaller, simpler. They break from the mold of mammoth homes with grand entryways, which can be viewed as monuments to the individual. “Your home shouldn’t measure your prestige” Ed says. With this development, he adds, such symbolism is stripped away and nature takes its place.
Pockets of houses, called settlements, are designed to minimize the impact on the land and to fit in with their specific habitats and landscapes. The Noonans’ place in the Pond Settlement, for instance, hugs low to the ground, while taller, narrower structures occupy the woods. Those forest homes are covered with Corten, a product used on railroad cars that over time takes on a rusted patina. In some houses, two-story screened porches allow residents a tree-house feel or a long view of the adjacent meadow. “We’re house farmers, in a way,” Ed says. “I just look on this as renewing. I’m renovating the farm.”
Instead of installing a sewer system, the Noonans devised wastewater wetlands on the property. The system uses plants, soil and microbial life to filter wastewater, which eventually is pumped out and used to irrigate the hayfield and ultimately drains into an aquifer.
Scaled down living spaces benefit humans too, says Sarah Noonan, who manages sales for her parents’ development. After moving from Washington, D.C., she lived on the property for a year with her three children. “We didn’t spend our days messing with our stuff,” she says, for the simple fact that the family was forced to live with less. Life moved outside, and the kids filled their days building dams in the creek, feeding the goats or hiking the dunes to the beach.
“The pace of life was slower,” Sarah says. “We paid attention to what was happening in nature in every part of every season.” She recalls reaching to brush away an insect on her leg, and to her delight finding a tiny frog. And these days she and her kids know to look for wild turkey in the fall.
“This is no gimmick,” says Ed amid birdsong and the rustle of wind in the meadow. “To be disconnected from nature, you lose a whole balance in your life.”
Jessica Trobaugh Temple is a freelance writer living in Granger, Indiana.