The Birth of the Water Gardens

John Hmurovic
January 2019

A map showing Davidson’s plan for the Water Gardens. At the top center, where 119th Street reaches its western end, is the planned Beaumont Park. Note the lagoon envisioned at the left center of the map. It was named Moylan’s Lagoon, and ran along Hamann Court. Another lagoon is drawn in along Stewart Court, which is located to the right of center on this map. It was called Gavit’s Lagoon.

Imagine lagoons running down the center of some streets in the Water Gardens neighborhood of Robertsdale. Imagine Roosevelt Drive, a quiet residential street off the main traffic routes, instead serving as a major link from Whiting-Robertsdale to Chicago. Or, imagine 119th Street being that link. All of those possibilities were considered a century ago, at the time the Water Gardens were born.

The Water Gardens came about because of a problem in Whiting. Less than thirty years after the arrival of Standard Oil in 1889, Whiting experienced a housing crisis. In 1919, 4,000 men worked at the Whiting refinery, an increase of 1,000 over the year before. More than a quarter of those working at the refinery couldn’t live in Whiting if they wanted to. There were not enough houses. There were no homes or apartments to rent. There wasn’t even land on which new houses could be built. Whiting, land-locked between Lake Michigan and its neighboring cities, was out of room. To solve the problem, real estate developers looked west to the Robertsdale section of Hammond.

The first person of European heritage who owned the land that became the Water Gardens was George W. Clark, northwest Indiana’s original land baron. In 1852, he started to buy up almost every piece of land between the Illinois state line and what today is Broadway in Gary. He purchased about 15,000 acres, and none of it cost him more than $1.25 per acre.

Clark died in 1866. His property was inherited by his two brothers and three sisters. One of those sisters was Caroline Forsythe. Caroline and her husband, Jacob Forsythe, bought out all the Northwest Indiana land inherited by Caroline’s siblings. They made their son, Oliver Forsythe, responsible for managing the holdings.

The Forsythe family owned what is now the Water Gardens until 1919 when Oliver Forsythe sold sixty acres to Henry S. Davidson for $120,000. Davidson was one of Whiting’s most active real estate developers and was well aware of the housing crisis in Whiting. Just three years earlier, he played a major role in the creation of the West Park development, another Robertsdale neighborhood designed to handle the growth in Whiting. West Park had as its borders Atchison Avenue on the east, Lake Avenue on the west, 119th Street on the north, and 121st Street on the south.    

Water Gardens founder Henry S. Davidson regularly met with homeowner groups in the Water Gardens, encouraging them to set building standards for homes in their neighborhood in order to improve the quality of the homes.

Davidson saw the Water Gardens as something special. It was, he said in his newspaper ads, “much more than a mere subdivision. It represents an effort to preserve our lake district forever as a residence zone, unpolluted by smoke and grime.” A news article from 1919 said Davidson planned to make full use of Wolf Lake for ornamental and pleasure purposes.

Small parks were a part of the design. Beaumont Park, named for a past Whiting mayor and Standard Oil Refinery executive, was to be located on both sides of 119th Street, just west of Maiden Lane. Years after Davidson’s original plan, Forsythe Park was created just west of the planned Beaumont Park. The land where Beaumont Park was supposed to be, on the western side of Maiden Lane, is now occupied by housing.

The plan also called for a public square. It was created at the corner of 119th Street and Warwick Avenue. For many years that lot had a baseball backstop for use in the summer. The lot was dug out so it would be a foot or so lower in elevation than the streets around it, which allowed it to be flooded by the fire department in the winter and to be used for ice skating. The lot was filled and leveled a number of years ago but is still an open public space, and still bears the original name suggested in Davidson’s plan: Forsythe Square.     

This aerial shot shows Wolf Lake in the bottom right part of the photo. and the Water Gardens to its left. The white swath just below the center of the photo is where Moylan’s Lagoon was located, and the smaller white patch at the left end of it is Forsythe Square. This photo was probably taken in the early 1960s.

Davidson pushed the idea of living close to Wolf Lake as a major reason for people to live in the Water Gardens. But there were limited lots close to the lake. For those living a little further, he offered lagoons. The original design shows Moylan’s Lagoon, as it was called, running from the southern edge of Forsythe Square, continuing south along Hamann Court, and emptying into Wolf Lake. Gavit’s Lagoon, was designed to begin slightly west of the intersection of Warwick Avenue and Stewart Court, continue west along Stewart Court all the way to Caroline Avenue, where it curved south and formed the western boundary of the Water Gardens before continuing on to Wolf Lake. According to the plan, it would connect to Wolf Lake just west of the mouth of Moylan’s Lagoon.

Today, there are no lagoons in the Water Gardens, but a walk down Hamann Court and Stewart Court clearly shows where they were designed to be. On both streets, there is a median strip of grass and trees splitting the streets in half. Those medians are the locations of the lagoons.  

The plan also called for winding roads and wide avenues to “give the effect of a park.” Anyone who has gotten even a little bit lost in the Water Gardens over the past 100 years would agree that there are plenty of winding streets. As for wide avenues, 119th Street west of Calumet was designed to be one of the largest. Today, it also has a grass and tree lined median down its center.

This map appeared in an 1920 ad placed by Henry S. Davidson to promote the Water Gardens. It shows his thoughts on Roosevelt Drive crossing Wolf Lake and connecting with 116th Street in Chicago. It also shows the Water Gardens as the only development on the west side of Calumet Avenue.

But the widest street in Davidson’s plan was to be Roosevelt Drive, named for President Theodore Roosevelt who died earlier in 1919. Today, a wide median runs through the center of Roosevelt Drive. Its many tall, mature trees make Roosevelt Drive one of the more peaceful looking streets in Whiting-Robertsdale. But peaceful was not part of the original plan. Even calling Roosevelt a “Drive” was an indication that Davidson dreamed that it would be more than the streets, avenues, lanes and courts that he placed in the names of other Water Gardens roads.  

A map which Davidson had drawn up shows Roosevelt Drive serving as a major link between Robertsdale and Chicago. Instead of ending at Wolf Lake, the plan was to have Roosevelt Drive continue northwest as it crossed the lake into Illinois, where it would connect with 116th Street in Chicago. That plan never developed, but a decade later another plan proposed making 119th Street a major link to Chicago. The plan was pushed by a number of Whiting merchants who saw the value of linking Whiting’s major shopping street directly to the people of Chicago. If they got their wish, 119th Street would have continued beyond its current western end , crossed over the water to connect to 118th Street in Chicago, at which point it would curve north to connect with 112th Street.

There was opposition to that plan when discussions reached their peak in 1930. That year was also the first full year of the worst economic crisis in America. The Depression and the strong opposition killed it from becoming reality.

The Depression also dealt a heavy blow to Davidson. The collapsing economy led him into deep financial and legal problems which ended his career in Whiting real estate. He died in 1958 in San Mateo, California at the age of 84.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, parts of the Water Gardens remained undeveloped. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the final lots were sold and developed. By that time, many of the neighborhood’s pioneers had passed on or moved away. Below are the names of some of those neighborhood pioneers.

Pioneers on Each Street in the Water Gardens, and Their Home Addresses
Officially, the development known as the Water Gardens has Wolf Lake as its western and southern boundary, and Calumet Avenue as its eastern border. Its northern border is roughly at 117th Place. The area north of 117th Place but west of Calumet Avenue was built shortly after the Water Gardens.

A more thorough examination of property records would reveal the very first person living on each street in the Water Gardens, but short of that the list below narrows down the possibilities. The names on this list are taken from the Hammond City Directories from 1921 to 1931, the first years that any of these streets appear in the City Directory. The names included on this list are those listed the first time their street appears in one of the directories. Those listed, in other words, are pioneers on their streets. Their houses, if they still stand at these addresses, are among the oldest in the Water Gardens.

Benjamin Place
2004       Merrill B. Adams
2006       Alfred H. Hensen
Adolphus Hall
2010       Charles Childs
2012       Frederick J. Benckes

Henry S. Davidson’s father was a newspaper editor in Monticello, Iowa, and when Henry came to Whiting one of his first ventures was to run a newspaper called The Whiting News. As a real estate agent he frequently used newspapers to promote his projects.

Blossom Row
1934       Willis S. Gullette
1936       Floyd D. Berg
1938       Robert E. Savage
2015       Homer Seed
2020       Edwin W. Bates

Brown Avenue
1725       Grover D. Hoover
1729       Ray Lunchford
1731       Sylvester Faught
Elmer L. Murdock
1743       Albert Hill
Clayton Ford
1745       Eddie Lemert
1749       Otto Lemert
1802       James W. Sexton
1806       Samuel M. Roseberry
1810       Clarence B. Wiltshire
1816       Henry A. Saxton

Burton Court
641         Thomas McBride

Calumet Avenue
1736       Henry Goever (grocer)
1744       John Duffala
1910       William E. Splawn (grocer)
1916       Paul Palko (grocer)         
1926       Hector Herbert
1932       John Adams
1942       Frank Mish (soft drinks)
2012       John Gulvas

Caroline Avenue
1731       Leslie Miles
1805       Charles B. Dean

“Over on Hollywood Court Hawes was the first to build. The first load of lumber was hauled one Thursday morning in September and on the following day Mr. Hawes and his family moved in.” —
Henry S. Davidson Ad for the Water Gardens, November 1924

Forsythe Square
1914       James Dunne
1154       Joseph Idzkowski

Hamann Court
2018       Robert L. Fisher

Hollywood Court
715         Fred Conroy
716         Herbert Geer
719         Clarence Downey
724         George S. Hawes
731         Otto George

Maiden Lane
1933       John B. Patterson

Parkview Avenue
1723       George Morganthaler (grocer)

George Morganthaler opened one of the first grocery stores in the Water Gardens at 1723 Parkview Avenue, which was on the northern edge of the development. The building that housed his grocery still stands along Parkview and 117th Place.

Roosevelt Drive
609         Richard D. Emerson
614         John D. Mansfield
620         Alfred S. Osbourne
630         Wallace A. Hoskins
632         Andrew Pfeiffer

Sophie’s Lane
1816       James L. Milligan
1822       Clyde Tucker

609 Roosevelt Drive was the first home for young couple Richard and Mary Emerson, and a place for them to raise their family.

Stewart Court
630         William L. Newton
Orto P. Bewley
660         William Obermiller
666         Peter Strenquist

Warwick Avenue
1933       Edgar Soraparu
1942       Merrill B. Adams

118th Street
606         John Solyon
610         Charles White
626         Clyde Byerly
705         Martin L. Tanney

119th Street
647         Floyd Braley
657         Frank P. Richardson
663         Firman G. Shaffer

120th Street
715         Walter Brown
Norman Beaton
Edward Brilmyer