Thursday, June 22, 2000

French Park offers a wooded wonderland

Its 275 unspoiled acres can accommodate fancy parties or wide-eyed exploring

By Linnea Eschenlohr
Enquirer contributor

Lucy Pavlick and daughters Bridget and Natalie walk a nature trail in French Park.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        One recent sunny afternoon, a group of kindergartners from Kennedy Heights Montessori gingerly make their way down a wooded path in French Park. Treading ever so carefully down the steep green hillside, these 5- and 6-year-olds are on the way to their favorite field trip of the year — a fossil-hunting expedition in the park's clear stream.

        Excited shouts erupt from the children as they discover real-life proof of the lessons they have been learning in the classroom.

        “Here's a brachiopod!”

        “Whoa! Hey look what I found!”

        Crinoids, trilobites and cephalopods are thrust at their teachers, Patti Birkett and Amy Beiting.

        “We like to come to this park because it is one of the treasures in our neighborhood,” Ms. Beiting explains. “The children can come back with their families and share the experience.”

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        French Park, known to those in the neighborhood as a haven for fossil hunting as well as a favorite dog-walking area, is a treasure. Located off Section Road in Amberley Village, the park is 275 acres of path-lined woodland and fields. A small creek meanders through the forest. Plenty of open spaces and hills invite kite fliers in the spring and sled riders in the winter.

        Named after Herbert Greer French, a Procter & Gamble vice-president in the 1920s and avid art collector, the park was Mr. French's rural estate.

        “Mr. French was a gentleman farmer,” says Doug Fraser, Cincinnati Parks senior landscape architect.

        Donated to the city upon Mr. French's death in 1942, French Park is the second largest park in the Cincinnati Parks system. Only Mount Airy Forest is larger.

The French house
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        Mr. French's home, an imposing brick structure that sits atop the park's drive, is used primarily as a rental facility for weddings and receptions. Originally built about 1800, the house has undergone numerous additions and renovations. Now brides are escorted down the mansion's imposing staircase, and party guests spill out onto the expansive lawn that overlooks a perennial garden and newly rediscovered reflecting pool.

        According to Mr. Fraser, the house had previously been used as offices for nature-related groups such as the Girls Scouts and the Sierra Club.

        “One of the first things that the French Park Advisory Council took on was to do a master plan for the park,” he says.

        The council, formed in 1995 after a group of concerned residents became worried that the park would be sold to the Hamilton County Park District, raised $15,000 to create the plan. As part of that plan, the council arranged to have 26 interior designers and decorators redo every room of Mr. French's house, with the intent of raising money to help support future park needs.

        The designer showcase, which took place October 1998, raised more than $100,000. “It was very important that the designers bought into the idea of making the design of each room work together so that the house would be rentable afterward,” says Sarajane King, immediate past president of the council.

        Today, the council continues to hold events, such as dog walks, that help fund the upkeep of the house's gardens.

        But according to Ms. King, the plan is to keep the park largely as a natural area. “When Mr. French gave the park to the city in his will, he wanted it to remain undeveloped,” she says.

  • What: French Park
  • Where: Amberley Village, off Section Road
  • Special programs and camps:
  “Spy on a Fly,” free public program on insects, 3-5 p.m. July 1. Open to all ages.
  Nature Camps for children ages 5-13, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. July 24-28. Includes nature study, hiking, games and crafts. Cost is $40 for Cincinnati residents; $50 for non-city residents.
  Pre-School Discovery Mornings for 31/2- to 5-year-olds (Must have turned 3 by January 2000) 9:45-11:45 a.m. July 25-27. Camp especially designed for preschoolers and includes hikes, games, stories, crafts and a snack. Cost is $12 for Cincinnati residents; $15 for non-residents.
  Call 321-6070 to get an application.
  To rent French House: 351-4777
        It is the park's natural charm that keeps regulars coming back. On the same day as the kindergartners' outing, Tara Smith of Blue Ash was out showing her friend Tom Craven, visiting from Honolulu, the appeal of this little-known park. Ms. Smith, the mother of three boys, values the park for its trails and streams.

        “It's a safe place for the boys to play in the water,” she notes of the stream, which rarely becomes very deep. “You can come out here and pretend you're in the woods. ... Well, I guess you are actually in the woods,” she says, laughing.

        Although there are a few swing sets and a shelter area available for rental, most of the park's playground is the woods and fields themselves.

        Pleasant Ridge resident Lucy Pavlick, the mother of two small girls, also enjoys the park's natural amenities.

        “Even though other parks have better playgrounds, we like the "camp feeling,' that you get here,” she says. “There's room to spread out, and you're not right on top of other groups that are also at the park.”

        Art students of all ages use the park's natural beauty as inspiration. The Art Academy of Cincinnati's Community Education Program holds numerous classes that focus on the park's landscape, as well as several classes for children.

        “It's nice to have an alternate location,” says Suzanne Fisher, director of community education. “People love the idea of going out there to work again and again.”

        As with the city's other parks, French Park is also the site of several nature-related programs and special summertime camps for children.

        Now in its second full season of hosting wedding receptions, future plans at French House include expanding the facility's rental capabilities to include more corporate meetings and events.

        And for the many dog walkers who enjoy the park's trails and fields, there is some exciting news. The popularity of the city's only dog park in Mount Airy has made park planners aware of the need for more such facilities.

        “We are talking about building a second dog park here,” Mr. Fraser says.


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