The Parks and Plantings of Forest Hills
In 1925, Joseph Walker acquired a “large body of wooded land” known as Abney Park. He then hired noted landscape architect, planner, and conservationist Harlan P. Kelsey of Salem, MA, to design Columbia’s newest suburb on the western half of the land. The area was later known as Forest Hills No. 1 or the “high hills”. In July of that year, Kelsey produced a draft sketch plan for Forest Hills that contained many hallmarks of his style: curvilinear streets designed to mirror the topography of the land and mostly triangular areas reserved for the preservation or planting of trees and native plants.
By hiring Harlan Kelsey, Joseph Walker signaled the high quality of design that would distinguish his new development. In a contemporary list of landscape architects across the country, Kelsey’s name was included alongside that of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., designer of Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, NY, and John Nolen, designer of Myers Park in Charlotte, NC. Kelsey held national recognition for his naturalistic landscape designs.
In addition, the quality of Kelsey’s work was known first-hand by many Columbia residents. He had produced a civic improvement plan for the city (1905) as well as public commissions for the State Hospital grounds and Maxcy Gregg Park. He had also completed private commissions for developer M.C. Heath’s Darlington Place (1913) and Heathwood (1914-1919). When The State newspaper (Dec. 16, 1925) announced that Columbia would be welcoming a new development designed by Harlan Kelsey, potential investors in the project would have responded with enthusiasm.
According to The State, Kelsey had included “eight little parks” in his design. These areas were reserved for the “planting of the shrubs and flowers” that were to be supplied by the Fruitland Nurseries of Augusta, GA. The site also included “Numbers of ‘Live Oaks’, magnolia, hickory, cedar, dogwood and many other trees familiar in our forests and gardens.” A small ninth green space is present on the plat prepared for Forest Hills, Inc. by Tomlinson Engineering dated July-December 1925. The Tomlinson plat, which is most likely the culmination of collaboration between Kelsey and the site’s engineers, most closely resembles the western side of Forest Hills we know today.
Not only did Kelsey provide guidance on the planting of the little parks. He and Walker together took an interest in preserving the existing trees, particularly those lining the streets. Westminster Drive, described by The State as that “uniquely beautiful serpentine avenue” was lined in Live Oaks and Cassina Hollys. Also, the upper portion of Canterbury was lined with River Oaks in a very intentional fashion.
Over the years, efforts have been made to preserve and protect the old growth trees that were present at the time of Forest Hills’ development, and indeed, a distinctive feature of the landscape are the trees. Whereas Joseph Walker’s second development, begun in 1935 and known as Forest Hills No. 2, as well as associated land developed by Mallard Bagnal did not reflect the designs of Harlan Kelsey, the old growth trees that still exist throughout Forest Hills stand as a testament to the original beauty of the land. By engaging Kelsey to design Forest Hills No. 1, Walker made clear his vision for his new development and his interest in the preservation of its natural beauty.