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The Rolla Daily News - Rolla, MO
Rolla Gardens and Green Acres - Rolla's First Modern Subdivisions
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By Rolla Preservation Alliance
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By Ryan Reed 

On Friday, June 14th, 1941, the skies over Rolla were overcast with the threat of rain.  In Cooperstown,  New York, the Cleveland Indians trumped the Cincinnati Reds 2-1 in a Lou Gehrig memorial exhibition game.  Across the Atlantic, the Nazi controlled French government announced the arrest of over 12,000 Jews who would be interred in concentration camps.  On the same day, Phyllis Viviano of St. Louis entered the Phelps County Courthouse to purchase over 40 acres of unimproved property east of Rolla.  Within a year, this property would become two residential subdivisions known as Green Acres and Rolla Gardens.

Rolla Gardens (top) and Greens Acres (bottom) in 1942


In 1941, the property that would become Green Acres and Rolla Gardens was a gentle rise that sloped toward the south into a valley created by a tributary of the Little Dry Fork known as Love Creek.  The only development was a roadway laid by the State of Missouri circa 1932.  This roadway, christened Highway 72, eventually meandered its way through the Ozarks to its eastern terminus in Jackson, Missouri.  At the time of purchase, the property was owned by father and son, Elbert (Bert) and Rex Williams.  Bert was a native of Texas County, Missouri and arrived in Rolla shortly after his marriage to Althea Sturgeon.  Bert was a cashier with the Rolla State Bank and eventually became the president of the institution.  His son, Rex, was born in Rolla and was educated at the Missouri School of Mines.  He became a professor of Mechanics at the university and later became the chair of the department.  His long career at the university culminated as Assistant Dean.

The purchaser of the property was a 22 year old St. Louisan named Phyllis Viviano.  One of four children, Viviano grew up on St. Louis’ north side and worked as a stenographer for a bank.  Her father, Philip Viviano, immigrated from Borgetto, Sicily in 1905 and worked as a packer in a spaghetti factory.  Her mother, Mary Capone, was born to Sicilian immigrants in St. Louis and was a homemaker.  It is unknown how this young woman of slight means from St. Louis became aware of the sale of over 40 acres of land in Phelps County or what her intentions were of purchasing it.  It can be speculated that since Viviano and Williams both worked for banking institutions, she could have been aware of the sale.  The property could have been purchased through Viviano by another individual or entity who intended to develop the property for speculative purposes.  What is known is after she acquired the land, the planning and execution of Green Acres and Rolla Gardens was solely a St. Louis project.



Rex Williams and Phyllis Viviano


One factor that likely necessitated the purchase of land for speculative residential housing in Rolla was the establishment of a military installation 30 miles southwest of town.  The post was named to honor General Leonard Wood, who served as the Chief of Staff and was the former military governor of Cuba and the Philippines.   A ceremonial groundbreaking took place on December 3, 1940.  The post was initially intended to train infantry troops but quickly became an engineering training facility after the creation of the Engineering Replacement Center.  By May of 1941, troops began to arrive at Fort Leonard Wood by road and rail.  Within four years, the military installation had trained over 500,000 troops.  Rolla being the largest city within the vicinity of the fort that could handle the needs of the large influx of military personnel, found itself in a fortuitous moment.  Soon, vacant land was being developed into housing and Rolla's population boomed.  Within ten years, Rolla’s population nearly doubled from 5,141 in 1940 to 9,354 by 1950.  Rolla Gardens and Green Acres were the forerunners of Rolla’s burgeoning modern residential development.


On July 7, 1941, less than one month after Viviano’s purchase, the property was sold to two St. Louis companies.  The acreage north of Highway 72 was obtained by the Rolla Gardens Building and Supply Company while the remaining property south of the roadway was sold to the Overland Building Corporation.  The latter company was owned and operated by John E. Jones and his wife Lucille of Normandy, Missouri.  A contractor by trade, Jones descended from a long line of brick layers and carpenters.  Rolla Gardens Building and Supply Company was administered by Gustave and Vera Sturmfels of St. Louis.  Sturmfels worked as a contractor, building subdivisions across St. Louis City and County.  His older brother, Philip, was also a contractor and was likely involved with the development of Rolla Gardens.  The elder Sturmfels possibly constructed other homes and subdivisions in Rolla.  In 1946, Philip Sturmfels passed away in Rolla and his death certificate lists his permanent address as St. Louis.  Immediately after acquiring the property, both companies hired the Joyce Surveying Company to survey and design a residential subdivision of their respective parcels. 


The Joyce Surveying Company was a landscape engineering firm incorporated in 1892 by John G. Joyce.  Based in St. Louis, the company platted a bevy of commercial and residential developments including the Lake Charles Park Cemetery in Bel-Nor, Missouri.  Both parcels along Highway 72 were not large enough to incorporate the typical grid pattern street design typical of urban development.  The Joyce Surveying Company utilized cul-de-sac and crescent drives for Rolla Gardens and Greens Acres.  This design principal was used to turn odd shaped properties into desirable building lots.




The cul-de-sac was the product of the ideals of Ebenezer Howard known as the Garden City Movement.   Howard’s book, To-morrow:  A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, sought to remedy the overcrowding and poor conditions of industrial cities by “restoring people to the land”, with urban planning.   The result was the planned, self-sufficient garden city which created a “joyous union” between town and county.   Howard’s garden city strove to combine the attractions of the city with access to the countryside and a healthier life style.  Howard stipulated his utopia would consist of 6,000 acres which could accommodate 32,000 people.  The city would be planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and six boulevards radiating from the city center.  Once the city reached its maximum population, another garden city would be established nearby.  Howard envisioned a cluster of several garden cities connected by road and rail lines.




Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Plan from 1902


The garden city prototype was utilized in several planned communities in England beginning in 1899 with the development of Letchworth by Ebenezer Howard.  Inspired by Howard’s plan, English social reformer Henrietta Barnett hired the firm of Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker to design a garden suburb in 1907.  The resulting Hampstead Garden Suburb is credited as being the first planned community to employ the use of the modern cul-de-sacs.  Unlike current cul-de-sacs, the street plan lacked a circular turn-around and terminated with an abrupt dead end.  With the rise of the automobile, Unwin believed the dead end road would “be especially to be desired for those who like quiet for their dwellings.” 


The garden city plan arrived in the United States with the development of Radburn, New Jersey between 1929 and 1932.  Designed by landscape architects Henry Wright and Clarence Stein, Radburn sought to combine the garden city movement with the automobile.  Their design advocated the cul-de-sac as a rational escape from the limitations of the street grid plan.  According to Stein, the typical grid iron street plan became flooded with cars that resulted in, “porches faced bedlams of motor throughways with blocked traffic, honking horns and noxious gasses.”   It is typically regarded that Wright and Stein’s Radburn is the first instance where the cul-de-sac was used in urban planning in the United States. 


29 Rolla Gardens Drive
A bulletin produced by the federal government in 1938 is credited with the proliferation of the cul-de-sac in the United States.  The Federal Housing Administration’s Technical Bulletin Number 5 entitled Planning Neighborhoods for Small Houses, was based upon the ideology of Radburn.  The bulletin attempted to set forth planning principles to be followed to create neighborhoods that were financially secure and attractive as well as enjoyable and satisfying.  Geared towards the creation of suburbs away from the city core, developers, engineers and architects borrowed several ideas that were adapted and used in an urban context.  One concept suggested by the FHA was the use of cul-de-sacs.  The design would discourage through traffic, thereby decreasing noise, pollution and other hazards associated with the automobile.  Besides creating safe neighborhoods, the cul-de-sac could be incorporated “into a plan so odd shaped inaccessible remnants of a subdivision… are converted into desirable lots.”


Rolla Gardens and Green Acres both utilized design elements from the FHA’s bulletin only three years after its publication.  Both subdivisions included a single 60’ wide curvilinear road.  Rolla Gardens, the first subdivision in Rolla to have cul-de-sacs, had four cul-de-sacs incorporated into its design.  Two cul-de-sacs extended from the north line of Rolla Gardens Drive.  The second set was the terminus of Iris and Rose Courts which intersected Highway 72.  All four cul-de-sacs had  a 100’ circumference which was 40% larger than the 60’ minimum specified by the FHA.


46 Green Acres Drive
The plats for Greens Acres and Rolla Gardens closely followed the design principles for streets stipulated in FHA’s bulletin.  The first concern of the developer, according to the FHA, was the establishment of a sound community.  The bulletin further explained, “the sale of unimproved lots for purely speculative purposes seldom, if ever, results in the establishment of sound communities.”  Sturmfels and Jones likely took this into consideration when designing their respective subdivisions in 1941.  After Joyce Surveying platted Rolla Gardens and Green Arces, both developers began the construction of a combined 137 homes.  


The small single family detached homes constructed in both subdivisions exhibited elements of the Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival styles.  Commonly known as Minimal Traditional, this style was the result of the economic depression of 1929.  The compromised style reflects the form of traditional styles popular during the 1930’s and 40’s, but lacks their decorative detailing.  These houses were built in great numbers in the years immediately preceding and following World War II and commonly dominated the large tract housing developments during the period.  Many of the dwelling designs and materials for construction were likely purchased from Powell Lumber Company.  The local company advertised in the Rolla Daily News the sale of house plans similar to those found in Rolla Gardens and Greens Acres.  The subdivision was completed by the Spring of 1942 and developed lots were sold to the general public.  Some of the earliest residents in both subdivisions were military personnel, university staff and young families from Rolla.


Rolla Gardens and Greens Acres exemplifies an early  implementation of a planning practice introduced to the United States by Great Britain known as the cul-de-sac.  The use of cul-de-sac reduced the amount of car traffic on residential streets within the subdivision, thus reducing noise, air pollution and the probability of accidents to create a sound community.  Twenty years after the platting of both subdivisions, this design principal has been the dominant road network structure of suburbs in the United States and aboard.  Rolla has the distinction of having two very intact pre-World War II subdivisions incorporating these design principals.


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