Have you ever wondered how the IMA ended up in what is at once a beautiful, yet (relatively speaking) a remote, setting? For many people, the answer lies in the 1966 gift of the family estate by the children of J.K. Lilly, Jr.—but true as that is, there’s an even more fascinating story that precedes the Lilly family’s arrival on the site. That’s the story of Hugh McKennan Landon and his partner Linnaes Boyd, who bought 52 acres of land in 1907 which they intended to develop into an enclave of country estates.
Their reasoning was sound. At the time, country estates were all the rage among wealthy Americans, who yearned to escape the noise and pollution of the cities—noise and pollution often created by the very manufacturing plants that had made them wealthy in the first place. And Landon and Boyd’s property at the intersection of Michigan and Maple Roads was both remote enough to qualify as countryside, yet near enough to the city to make commuting easy. (The Interurban rail line ran past on the western edge of the property.) Maple Road, which we know today as 38th St., ended at the White River—there was no bridge at that time.
While Boyd subdivided his half of the property into parcels fit for multiple mini-estates, Landon turned his half into a single estate he dubbed Oldfields. (At the time, wheat fields surrounded the property, which itself had been partially used as farmland before Landon and Boyd bought it.) The two partners then incorporated their new development as an actual town, which they named Woodstock, the same name they gave to the country club they created on the other side of Maple Road (now 38th St.) as an inducement to prospective residents. The Town of Woodstock, as the community was formally known, took awhile to develop; by the time Landon and Boyd moved into their newly built mansions, only one other person had done the same—Dr. Lafayette Page. Most of the other lots remained undeveloped until the 1940s and early ‘50s—at its peak, the town consisted of only nine houses.
In 1932, J.K. Lilly, Jr. bought Oldfields from Landon and extensively remodeled the mansion. Six years later, he built a separate residence called Newfield for his son J.K. Lilly III and his new wife, as well as building a recreation building known as The Playhouse, which had indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a tennis court.
By all accounts, in its heyday the town was a lively place to live, with town meetings and annual Christmas party taking place at Boyd’s former residence, which his daughter Helen and her husband, Judge William Higgins occupied. But the town came to an end in the early 1960s, when J.K. Lilly, Jr. started buying out his neighbors, offering much more than market prices to convince them to sell. Lilly then tore down all of the houses he bought, expanding his estate to encompass the entire Landon-Boyd property.
With one exception. In 1942, Dr. Wayne and Dorothy Ritter bought half a lot from Judge Higgins (who owned two lots in addition to the one his home was on) and built a two-story brick house facing 38th Street. When Lilly began buying the houses in Woodstock, the Ritters refused to sell. Today their former residence is the only Woodstock home left standing aside from the Lilly house and Newfield.
Speaking of which, after the IMA moved to the former Lilly estate—erecting its first building, Krannert Pavilion, on the site of the Boyd-Higgins home—Newfield housed the Museum Alliance’s Better Than New Shop (which closed in 2007), while The Playhouse became the Garden on the Green restaurant. Today, Newfield awaits its next incarnation, while the former recreation building is home to the Horticultural Society’s library. Ironically, the most lasting aspect of the former Town of Woodstock is the country club with which it shared a name—it’s still across the street, as it has been since Landon and Boyd were developing their town on the outskirts of town.
You can learn much more about what happened before and since the IMA’s move to Oldfields when Every Way Possible, a newly published history of the Museum, hits the shelves of The IMA Store in December in celebration of the IMA’s 125th anniversary.