National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Landscape Architecture Month Feature 2013
Mount Airy Forest, Cincinnati, Ohio

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

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Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

Planned in 1907 by landscape architect George E. Kessler but established in 1911, the Mount Airy Forest in Cincinnati, Ohio, covers an impressive 1,471 acres and includes natural areas, planned landscapes, buildings, structures, and landscape features. The numerous hiking trails, bridle paths, walls, gardens, pedestrian bridges, and various other improvements within Mount Airy Forest reflect the ambitious park planning and development that took place in Cincinnati in the early to mid-20th century. Conceived as the nation’s first urban reforestation project, the park has developed over the years—especially during the Depression and post-World War II period- into a park with a variety of areas, spaces and structures designed to accommodate recreational, social, and educational activities. Today it continues to offer a large expanse of protected land within the city limits where the public can enjoy the richness and diversity of nature. Mount Airy Forest was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on April 13, 2010.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

Mount Airy Forest is by far the largest park in the Cincinnati Park System, and is approximately four miles northwest of downtown Cincinnati and consists of varied topography and landscapes, including ridges, wooded hillsides, ravines, creeks, a lake, and open meadows. The park contains an integrated system of winding roads leading to all the park’s facilities. Nearly every element of design in Mount Airy Forest-from the layout of roads and trails, the forest, gardens, structures and buildings-contributes to the character and significance of the park.

The foundation for the park system that exists today was established early in the 20th century with the visionary plan prepared by landscape architect George E. Kessler in 1907. Kessler recognized Cincinnati’s rapid rate of growth and was concerned that if an aggressive land acquisition program was not undertaken soon, that property in key locations might be developed for industrial or residential uses and become too expensive to purchase at a later date. He believed that the Cincinnati Park Board should place a high priority on purchase of land with development of the parks taking place later as funding became available.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

The first land for Mount Airy Forest was acquired in 1911. George Kessler explained his design and theory for the park when he wrote the introduction to the 1913 Cincinnati Park Board Annual Report. In it he stated, “in every large city the out-door recreation and opportunity it gives for healthful enjoyment, the System, as a whole, becomes incomplete, unless one or more great outlying properties are acquired.  These properties should be large enough to receive a very large portion of the population at any one time without overcrowding and really bring the country within easy reach of the great urban population. This can be done through the acquisition of large areas of ground…in European cities the contiguous forest areas have become the great outlying parks…in Cincinnati, the gradual acquisition of the properties-now known as Mt. Airy forest-would supply to the northern or northwestern sections of the city, one of the finest forests as a part, that could be established in about any city in the country.” Clearly the intention in purchasing the Mount Airy land was to create a vast urban forest within the urban area.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

The history of the historic changes in the park was largely witnessed by George Kase, who worked in Mount Airy Forest from 1933-1969. Kase,wrote a brief paper “The Park Forester bids Au Revoir to Mount Airy Forest” upon his retirement in 1969.  He describes his role in the park and what he identified as three major periods of development, 1911-1920, 1921-1932, and 1933-1968.

By 1929, Mount Airy Forest consisted of over 1,300 acres. Reforestation efforts began immediately after the acquisition of the land. The first period (1911-1920) was defined by land acquisition and the first stage of rehabilitation and reforestation. Purchases during this period-nearly 1200 acres-cost an average $120 per ace. Much of the land, which had been grazed and farmed, was not suitable for agricultural purposes and erosion on the hillsides was a problem.  Based on a plan created by State Forester Edmund Secrest (and George Kessler) over 550 acres were planted with hardwoods, including maple, oak, ash, linden and beech, and another 100 acres with conifers, including pine, fir, spruce, red cedar and arborvitae.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

The second period (1921-1932) was marked by little additional planting and much less land acquisition. Only an additional 150 acres were added to the park. However, some physical improvements were made with the construction of the Colerain Avenue entrance and two roads-Furnas Ridge to the Oval and Blue Spruce Road to Shepard Road.

The third period (1933-1968) extended from the beginning of federally assisted park improvements and ended with Mr. Kase’s retirement. Mr. Kase wrote that between 1933 and 1943, 90% of the facilities that existed in 1969 were built during this period, including”…paved roads, picnic areas and facilities, shelters and comfort stations, trails, service roads, service areas and buildings…”. By 1956 Kase stated that all the “physical facilities” were completed---these included the post-war development of Oak Ridge and Maple Ridge lodges and adoption of the Arboretum Center from an existing farmhouse.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

The Cincinnati Park Board took advantage of a number of Depression-era programs to improve parks and parkways throughout the city, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Works Program Administration (WPA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and others. The CCC had an enormous impact on the development of Mount Airy Forest. The camp was located within the park and provided the manpower for all types of projects. Combined with funding from the WPA, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the National Park Service, the park was transformed during the period between 1933, when these programs began to be established and 1943, when programs were suspended to direct resources and manpower to World War II. During this period, Cincinnati built 65 park structures and four parkways-nearly half of the 135 structures that were built during its 175-year history.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

President Roosevelt created the CCC on March 31, 1933 to alleviate some of the effects of the Great Depression. Roosevelt stated in a radio address “…we are giving opportunity of employment to one-quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially young men who have dependents, to go into forestry and flood prevention work.”  CCC programs were established in every state, usually with federal and local partners. The Mount Airy CCC camp was established in a cooperative agreement between the Cincinnati Park Board and the National Park Service as the cooperating federal agency. George W. Kase, who had been working for the Cincinnati Park Board in Mount Airy Forest, was granted a leave of absence to work for the National Park Service as the Project Superintendent for the camp.

The first group of 20 African-American youth arrived on May 4, 1935 from Fort Hill, Ohio. This group was charged to assist with the construction of the camp, which was located on Diehl Ridge, within the park (now located in the west section of the park). The camp was constructed in slightly less than three months at a cost of $18,000. During the two years it was in operation, the CCC camp provided 51,414 man-days of work, the National Park Service contributed $58,583.63 and the Cincinnati Park Board contributed $9,242 for an average of $1.32 per man-day utilized.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

Mount Airy Forest contains a remarkable collection of buildings, structures, walls and infrastructure that results in a coherent and cohesive whole. The architecture design of the buildings was established during the Depression with “rustic” architecture as the favored style. Combined with the use of native stone and heavy timber, the buildings blend with the landscape. Although designed in a similar style with similar materials, all of the buildings are distinctive. The Oval and Furnas Hill Open Shelters utilize peeled cedar logs as a decorative element; the Pine Ridge Lodge was an adaptive use of a mid-19th century farmhouse into a park lodge with rustic details; the Colerain Avenue Comfort Station has an Art Moderne appearance with a low horizontal profile and round stone columns; and Oak Ridge and Maple Ridge lodges exhibit Wrightian influencers with their long horizontal profiles, and massive stone chimneys.

[photo]
Mount Airy Forest
Photograph courtesy of Ohio State Historic Preservation Office

One man, C. Carl Freund, who worked with the Cincinnati Park Board from 1930 until his death in 1959, is responsible for more park buildings in Mount Airy Forest than any other architect-a total of 37 buildings.  Mount Airy Forest also includes the work of other architects, including Joseph Stith, who expanded the Oval Concession in 1949; H. Brunke, who designed the McFarlan Comfort Station and McFarlan Open Shelter, E.L Gill who designed Blue Spruce Open Shelter, and Felsberg& Gillespie, who designed the Maple Ridge Lodge.

The forest itself is an important design element in the park. Although it appears completely natural, talented and creative people designed it. Landscape architect George Kesser and State Forester Edmund Secrest are credited with the original plan. Kessler also designed Kansas City’s park plan in the early 1890s, the St. Louis Worlds’ Fair site, and cityscapes stretching from Dallas, Texas to Denver, Colorado.

Excerpted from Nancy Recchie, Mount Airy Forest NRHP Nomination, Ohio SHPO, April 13, 2010.

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