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Written by Mary G. Butler   

Merwood: Battle Creek's Romantic Suburb

On December 5, 1921, twenty-three Battle Creek citizens, led by architect A. B. Chanel and attorney Verner W. Main, petitioned the City Commission for authorization to plat a new "exclusive residential section" which would be "one of the most novel community settlements in Michigan." The proposed addition, called Merwood, consisted of twenty-three acres in Merritt's Woods and was planned to exploit the natural beauty of the area's heavily wooded rolling hills.

The development progressed slowly and the final plat was not filed with the City until two years later. By the late 1920's eight houses were completed, including Chanel's residence at 9 Woodmer and the Barry house, also designed by Chanel, at 199 Emmett. The other original investors in the development included A. K. Carpenter, attorney John Mustard, Loren J. Keuhnle, Dr. H. M. Lowe, attorney Joseph L. Hooper, F. L. Condon, Dr. Carl Wencke, attorney Lawrence Gordon, Fred Sullivan, Commissioner Henry K. Allwardt, Eugene Glass, attorney John A. Gordon, Dr. Theodore Kolvoord, Charles Centner, Frederick Zinn and J. W. Murphy.

Chanel carefully planned the Merwood suburb with wide, curving streets and irregularly shaped lots to preserve the natural contours of the land. The Board of Directors of the Resident's Association was charged with enforcing deed restrictions to guarantee the continuing aesthetic quality of the area. These restrictions provided that the Board had approval of all building plans and subsequent sales and that the cost of each dwelling was to be at least six times the cost of the lot, or a minimum of $5,000. All buildings were single family dwellings with garages attached or constructed underneath the houses. No privies were permitted.

To preserve the area's natural beauty, residents were not permitted to destroy any living trees or erect any fences. Two lots were permanently set aside to be maintained by the Association as parks or playgrounds. In this concern for maintaining the park-like setting, the Merwood plan was a direct intellectual descendent of the "romantic suburb" movement in the late nineteenth century.

The "romantic suburbs" were first designed in the rebellion against the sterile grid patterns of most American towns and cities. Town planners and landscape architects sought "to suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquility" through "gracefully curved lines, generous spaces and the absence of sharp corners" in suburban residential areas removed from the hustle and bustle of the downtown business and commercial district. The first important suburb designed on these principles was Llewellyn Park, West Orange, New Jersey, created in 1853 by Llewellyn Haskell. His design featured an irregular street pattern, following the contours of the land, with centrally located park areas. A profusion of trees and plantings surrounded the "romantically designed" homes by Gothic architects A. J. Davis and A. J. Downing.

The most famous American designer of the new school was landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, creator of Central Park in New York City (1857-1861.) His firm of Olmstead and Vaux designed the seminal Riverside Park outside Chicago in 1868. The firm continued to produce plans which "applied the principles of Art to the arrangements of streets and grounds of a town or suburban village" into the 1920's.

In his design for Riverside Park, Olmstead wrote:"We cannot judiciously attempt to control the form of the houses which men shall build, we can only...take care that if they build ugly or inappropriate houses, they shall not be allowed to force them disagreeably upon our attention...We can require that no house shall be built within a certain number of feet of the highway, and we can insist each house-holder shall maintain one or two living trees between his house and his highway-line...A few simple precautions of this kind, added to the tasteful...disposition of shade trees...and other plantings along the road sides and in public places, will...cause the while locality...to possess, not only the attraction of neatness and convenience, but the charm of refined sylvan beauty and grateful umbrageousness, (and) an aspect of secluded peacefulness and tranquility..."

A. B. Chanel and the Battle Creek promoters of Merwood were following in Olmstead's footsteps, with one of the first and most successful "romantic suburbs" in Western Michigan. Today, Merwood in Merritt's Woods fulfills Olmstead's prophecy that a suburb designed on romantic principles will be "positively picturesque, and when contrasted with the constantly repeated right angles, straight lines and flat surfaces which characterize our large modern towns, (is) thoroughly refreshing."