Forest Hills man’s crusade to restore Gardens sundial

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Forest Hills Gardens was founded in 1909. An article from 1915 in The Newtown Register stated, “The old-fashioned sundial in the midst of the Gardens at Forest Hills is a very attractive feature, and it can be depended upon as giving the correct time when the sun shines.”

Nevertheless, it is an unsolved mystery as to how the sundial on Flagpole Green vanished decades ago. All that remains is the pea gravel pedestal with four holes where the sundial was once mounted.

Now longtime Forest Hills Gardens resident James Chamberlain is hoping to obtain the approval of the board of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation to put a new sundial on the pedestal.

“I was constantly fed Forest Hills history, law, and tradition from the very beginning of my marriage to Ann FitzSimons 40 years ago,” said Chamberlain. “Since my father-in-law, wife, and I were all lawyers, we spent many hours discussing all the case laws that affected the Gardens.”

Currently, Chamberlain is focused on a career in acting, but between that, “I am always willing to help restore our community.”

Over 35 years ago, Chamberlain noticed the missing sundial and its historic tie to the motif on the streetlamps around Forest Hills Gardens, which feature two trees surrounding a pedestal and sundial.

“No one I ever spoke to, including my father-in-law, knew what happened to the sundial,” he said. “It could have been stolen, broken or, rather unlikely, the sundial’s arm could have been viewed as an attractive nuisance.

When the Beautification Committee began restoring the nearby flagpole base,” Chamberlain continued, “we looked at the pedestal and noticed that the holes do not show any signs of damage, which might occur if someone tried to steal it.”

In 2010, Chamberlain became a member of the Gardens board. When the Beautification Committee was formed, he became the first chair.

“We took on several projects that were long-neglected, including the roofs of the Station Square kiosks, the pillar tops on Markwood Road and Burns Street, and the restoration of the original flagpole base on Greenway Terrace,” he said.

Currently, progress is being made on repairing the lawn and installing pea gravel pathways to replace “the dust bowl” that Flagpole Green has become.

“I view everything Grosvenor Atterbury and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. planned as sort of the ‘Gardens constitution,’ and times change but their ideas are like those of the Founding Fathers,” Chamberlain said.

He wanted the sundial to be as accurate as possible to the original, but no photos or postcards showed the sundial precisely enough to use as a guide.

“I searched for sundials that were made of solid brass in a size that would fit the pedestal, and I ordered one from a company in Canada that is 13.5 inches in diameter,” he said.

He embarked on an exhausting search of digitized catalogues from the early 1900’s, including everything that was offered by Smyser-Foyer, a Philadelphia company that created the lampposts, in addition to Fiske, which manufactured sundials and acquired Smyser.

“I found no pedestal in the exact shape we have,” Chamberlain said. “I also did not have luck searching for sundials from that period which feature four plugs on the underside that would fit into the holes of the plinth.

“My best guess is that Atterbury and Olmsted, Jr. designed their own base or found some local with a mold, and poured the pea gravel mixture into the form and in the benches at Middlemay Place,” he added. “Then they worked with Smyser-Foyer to create more than one insert to incorporate into the general design for the pole, lamp, and wrought-iron design.”

Upon enlarging a vintage photo, he saw how the sundial was aligned with what would have been the profile of the lamppost insert behind it.

“The lamppost has been twisted a bit over time as workmen conducted repairs, but at the beginning the profile of the lamppost insert would have matched the profile of the sundial,” Chamberlain said. “Both gnomons pointed north and south, as sundials are set, with the lower end of the gnomon pointing south towards The Leslie apartment building.”

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