Photo of the park taken by the author.

As the great Frederick Law Olmsted wrote, “No great town can long exist without great suburbs.” Keeping those suburbs “great,” however, can be quite challenging, and Forest Hills Gardens (FHG) is no exception. A living garden city designed and planned by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., along with noted architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, FHG is just 15 minutes from midtown Manhattan (NY).

FHG’s Beautification Committee has been committed to and focused on restoration and preservation projects which uphold Olmsted’s and Atterbury’s vision and legacy. “Olms-bury,” as it is affectionately coined, has become synonymous with the FHG’s community standard. Proper research and informed craftspeople are the most important elements of working on any project. 

In the last few years, FHG began with restoration efforts on our street lamp cages and poles. These cages house both “sundial” and “tree” inserts, a specific characteristic of our Olmsted-FHG design. The light cages’ multicomponent fabrication and casting required us not only to find an artisan who understood the “old-world” craft of metalwork and how to recreate the pattern, but also someone with incredible attention to detail. We found Mr. Richard Baird of Historical Arts & Casting who is one of the family founders and personally worked on this project. 

After completion of the pattern, prototype, and first run of light cages, FHG moved forward on another metal project: the finials! These little charms had once graced the tops of our corner lamp poles. Their replacement was a historic moment for our FHG community, as it’s taken about 80 years to begin the process. The story goes that this original feature was very short-lived – only about 25 years at most! Due to the popularity of “scrap drives” during World War II, which contributed to the war efforts, all but a very few of the finials were removed and donated. We had a few original finials left in place on street signs, sparsely distributed about our community. Now we have over 50 and counting….

Another project which started this year is assessing our “FHG-Olmsted tree canopy” with professional arborists— the Almstead tree company. Yes, you read that right….Almstead, not Olmsted. Our efforts began with a software inventory that mapped our entire Olmsted canopy of beautiful mature trees by arborists Michael Almstead & Erick Fields. We were able to categorize species and prioritize assessments, and are now able to track all tree health in a comprehensive manner. Our next step is to set the new standards and guidelines for the “replanting process” for trees that had to be removed. Replacement will be based on the original Olmsted plan; however, tree species will be evaluated with respect to climate conditions and adjoining residential design. 

Finally, this momentum is leading to what is likely to be the most long-in-coming, most challenging, and most exciting Beautification Committee project in our community— the parks! 

Our collection of parks needs to be examined holistically, yet also independently, due to their design contribution and use throughout the community. Decades of budgetary restrictions, nonconforming changes, poor decisions, and theft have compromised the integrity of these parks,– now to be addressed in a “master plan.” Landscape architects Liz Sargent, Lucy Lawliss, and Jen Trompetter have been consulted to begin the “first steps” in this endeavor. Our first site visit included Carnegie Park and Hawthorne Park. Carnegie Park was not an original Olmsted park, yet morphed organically into a park. Hawthorne Park is our largest park and was designed to be flooded in the winter for use as an ice skating rink. Both parks present their own unique challenges. Our hope is all efforts will produce another year of momentous advancements.

Maybe it’s because Forest Hills Gardens is located in NYC that I say this…. In this ever-changing world, what’s more evident each day and deserves every effort to remain a constant, is an Olmsted design. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. To all who live in or come to visit, Forest Hills Gardens is one of those Olmsted treasures.

Anthony Oprisiu is the VP, Beautification Chair, Tree Co-Chair of the Forest Hills Gardens Beautification Committee.

This article first appeared in the October 1, 2021, issue of Field Notes by the National Association for Olmsted Parks.