Like the peacocks and other fancy varieties of poultry that call this Mansfield, Ohio attraction home, I’ve been roaming around Kingwood Center for decades. In fact, Kingwood Hall, its French Provincial manor house, is one of my dream homes.
Despite a lifetime of visiting this 47-acre estate, I couldn’t tell you anything about Charles Kelley King, its creator. Little change there made for a comfortable, familiar setting, but left me a little lackluster about making the trip. Until now.
Kingwood Center is emerging from our recent past like I hoped I would: Still hardworking, but much more ambitious; more attractive and engaging; and definitely worth getting to know again.
It’s amazing what some creative rethinking, new sources of financial support, and improved interpretative and educational endeavors can do. No longer greeted at a small shed and left to wander around at will, I pulled into a parking lot that was nothing like I remembered. In this new Parking Garden, shade trees complement bioretention islands planted with shrubs, grasses and perennials like Cardinal Flower, Winterberry and Golden Leaved Sweet Flag that can tolerate being occasionally inundated with rainwater as it rushes to nearby Touby’s Run. Stormwater runoff in this area is also managed through three new rain gardens and an enlarged pond, restocked with fish, whose banks are planted with a mix of pollinator-friendly plants and no-mow grasses.
And then there’s the new visitor center, which has transformed the experience of arriving at Kingwood. After an April 2019 groundbreaking, the Garden Gateway Center opened in October 2020. It houses a cafe, a shop selling garden-themed gifts and plants from the Kingwood greenhouse, a multipurpose ballroom and conference rooms, and staff offices. At the welcome desk, fitted with unique Seneca tiles handcrafted from local clay in Attica, Ohio, you can purchase a guest pass to give as a thank-you, thinking-of-you or birthday gift. What a brilliant idea!
Best of all, a new exhibit gallery filled with historical artifacts introduced me to Mr. King. At last!
Born in Maine in 1867, “C.K.” or “Kelley” King studied electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, then took his first job working on electric trolley construction in St. Paul, Minnesota. Following a stint with a Chicago manufacturer of trolley fittings, in 1893 he came to Mansfield — one of the first cities to have an inter-urban electric railway system — to work for Ohio Brass.
This local foundry, established by Irish emigrants in 1888, first made harness rigs for horse-drawn carriages, wagons and plows. Keeping up with the times, Ohio Brass then developed brass valves for the heating and plumbing industries; overhead trolley hangers and other parts for electric streetcars; and brass whistles for factories and steam locomotives. In 1905, it became the largest manufacturer of electric railway supplies in the world. It expanded into the electrical industry by purchasing a company that produced porcelain insulators, where a pin inside grounds the electricity and the glazed surface grades the voltage from line to ground. (The most common color is the “sky-tone” glaze, which was designed to compliment Lady Bird Johnson’s 1965 Beautification program and Act.) Besides becoming a leading manufacturer of equipment for coal mines and electric power utilities, Ohio Brass also established a high-voltage test laboratory.
A perfectionist with high standards, King worked constantly, leading Ohio Brass into new markets. As the company expanded, he worked his way right up to the top, becoming its secretary in 1896, vice president in 1906, president in 1928 and chairman of the board in 1946. He traveled the world as he made his fortune, drumming up business for Ohio Brass. (The company was Mansfield’s largest employer until a succession of mergers led its plant to close in 1990.)
King purchased a large frame house on a scenic spot along Park Avenue in 1912 and lived there until 1926, when he hired Cleveland architect Clarence Mack to create a new French Provincial mansion on another part of the property. When Kingwood Hall was completed, the original house was cut into three parts and moved across Park Avenue to Glenbeck Lane. Existing beech trees were transplanted to the front lawn to create a more fitting setting for the home with 21 rooms, 12 fireplaces, an elevator and a built-in vacuum system.
Kingwood Hall maintains most of its original furnishings, including pieces King collected during his travels. Visitors begin in the foyer, an inviting space with yellow and green terrazzo flooring, a faux-marble stairway balustrade, and a fountain featuring a bronze statue of an infant.
Designed for entertaining, the home features a ballroom, a drawing room with seven French doors that open out onto a terrace and the south lawn, and a dining room with hand-painted wallpaper imported from France, hand-crafted mahogany furniture, and a Waterford crystal chandelier and wall sconces.
For the first time, visitors can now see the butler’s pantry, which houses King’s collection of Flamingo Pink Heisey glassware; the kitchen, with a warming oven and electric refrigerator; and a small nook with an annunciator, which summoned staff to a specific room when their assistance was needed. Art Deco crystal elephants, Bohemian art glass vases in the shape of frogs, and other elegant pieces King used for entertaining are displayed in the first floor hallway.
An avid reader of mysteries and historical novels, King spent much time in his reading room and his library. These two wonderful spaces contain over 8,000 volumes on horticulture and related fields, which comprised the reference and lending library Kingwood operated from 1953 to 2010.
In the flower room, arrangements of fresh flowers from Kingwood’s gardens and greenhouse would be created for display throughout Kingwood Hall. The color of the tablecloth used for King’s meals was checked daily so it would match that day’s floral arrangement. King would also have the flowers cut to his specifications and shipped to him during annual stays at Martha’s Vineyard and Palm Springs.
Although the third-floor bedrooms and staff quarters were converted to offices in 1953, these spaces are being restored to their 1930s appearance, with the help of a small collection of original photographs. These rare items survived King’s instructions that upon his death, all photos, letters and documents were to be removed or destroyed. Guided tours of Kingwood Hall, including the third floor, are now available.
When Kingwood Hall was completed, the 60-year-old King took vigorous walks for exercise. Every day, he would walk most of his two-and-a-half mile commute to work. When at home, he would take his collie dogs, Scotch and Rye, on walks around the grounds, which were designed by the Cleveland landscape architecture firm of Pitkin and Mott.
The estate included a swimming pool; added in 1920, it was one of the first in Mansfield. Mint was planted in the cracks of the flagstones surrounding the pool, creating a sweetly scented atmosphere as guests stepped on the mint while walking around the pool. Two bath houses were offset by a rare white pine trellis created by Donald V. Senour Hahn, who also designed the flower room. A sunken garden was complemented by a shelter with a thatched roof made from rye that was cut, cured and bound by European craftsmen. The formal garden featured two Vozech sculptures: The Lady of the Gaillardias and Pan the Piper, which has served as a backdrop for more than a few of our family photos.
Married and divorced twice, King had no children. In 1937, he began planning how his estate could enhance the quality of life of the citizens of Mansfield and Ohio. A trust agreement completed in 1945 made Kingwood Center official. He left most of his estate to the private foundation that continues to operate Kingwood today. One year after his death, in 1953, the estate opened as a public garden and educational institution for the advancement of horticulture and other cultural activities. His tennis court was converted to a parking lot. The original barn, chicken coop, garage, and carriage house became activity centers and exhibit halls. Here, I found one of my most-remembered features of my visits to Kingwood: the William A. Springer Mushroom Collection, a 200-piece assortment of ceramic mushroom sculptures made by Maria Maravigna (1899-2006; active 1940s-1970s). This award-winning Boston artist created exact, detailed replicas of mushrooms from white clay, with shiny, brightly colored glazes, signing them with her last name and identifying them as either “edible” or “poisonous.”
Kingwood features a woodland garden of shade-tolerant plants; herb gardens with culinary, medicinal, and dye plants; collections of daylilies, roses, Siberian irises and bearded irises. Best known for its tulip display, Kingwood creates beautiful seasonal plantings, including beds of summer annuals. Other longtime Kingwood favorites include the duck pond; the rose garden; a display greenhouse featuring cacti, bromeliads and succulents; an orangery with citrus plants, carniverous plants and tropical plants; and the production greenhouse, where nearly 95 percent of the plants used and sold at Kingwood are grown.
Thousands of new trees, shrubs and plants have been planted throughout Kingwood’s gardens to ensure that they are memorable in all seasons. A new meadow garden area designed by Austin Eischieid, a Chicago-based garden designer, introduces a new style of naturalistic gardening made popular by Dutch designer Piet Ouldof. Tightly packed, sweeping beds of perennials and grasses chosen for their structure and color not only attract pollinators and birds, but also suppress weeds. To see more of Austin’s work, see “Back to His Roots,” an article in the September 2020 issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
For more, track down a copy of Kingwood Center: The Legacy of Charles Kelley King, by Allene Holt Gramley.