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Old King Cole surveys his kingdom, smiling stoically from his perch atop a sign for the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center. His mystical realm, located off Route 40 in Ellicott City, Md., encompasses a Petco, a tanning salon, and a giant pumpkin that Peter Pumpkin Eater has long since vacated.
Behind the strip mall, Paul Kennedy scrambles over a high wooden wall, taking care not to slide down a steep hill leading to a gleaming white castle with red-peaked turrets. He makes his own appraisal of King Cole’s fairy-tale-themed territory: “The Three Pigs seem to have left,” he says. “They were here the last time I was, just a few months ago.”
Fortunately, Kennedy, who teaches photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, captured them on film earlier this year as part of “The Enchanted Forest,” a group of images he has made of the disused theme park. The collection of 13 photographs is on view at the Howard County Historical Society to Dec. 28.
“Every time I mention what I’m doing to anyone from the area, they launch into a half-hour dissertation on every memory they have of this place as a kid,” the 58-year-old Kennedy laughs. “One guy even insisted I come back to his house to look at his old family photos of it.”
The Forest—which opened in 1955, about a month after Disneyland did—was the East Coast’s first children’s theme park. In its ’60s heyday, the park saw more than 300,000 visitors annually. But the arrival of mega-amusement parks such as Kings Dominion steadily drew crowds away, and the Forest was sold in the late ’80s to developers, who put up the shopping center soon after but have never followed through with any plans to preserve or build on the site. Like the Three Pigs, Humpty Dumpty and the Dish’s friend the Spoon number among the park’s recently disappeared citizens, but for the most part, visitors who have sneaked in have been kind to the remaining structures.
Kennedy says he was drawn to the way boundaries have begun to blur between the natural world and the fading, fantastical town. “I love how things are just nestled into the woods now, with the brush so grown up around things,” he notes.
His photographs play on this fusion, presenting the Crooked Little House, for instance, with a cartoonish formalism that highlights its odd architecture while omitting any nearby indicators of its small scale. Surrounding plants and trees glitter in a wide beam of yellow sunlight. In another print, a knee-high Gingerbread Man looming in tall grass becomes an incongruously cheerful gravestone.
Kennedy made the foot-square color photographs with a medium-format camera, scanned the developed images into a digital file, and then ink-jet-printed them onto watercolor paper. “I wanted to remove the photos from the realm of reality, to give them a storybook quality,” he explains. “I’m not trying to show that this place is ugly or dilapidated. The things here have integrity.”
Although the Forest is not registered as a protected historical site, Kennedy plans to donate a portion of proceeds from the sale of the prints—as well as a collage that combines his photographs with vintage Enchanted Forest images—to the Howard County Historical Society.
Mostly, though, Kennedy just hopes the photos will make people remember the forlorn Forest. “I think it will be like finally getting to see that kid you used to have a crush on in grade school after 20 years,” he says, “how much they’ve changed but are still the same.” —Shauna Miller
Kennedy’s photographs are on view to Saturday, Dec. 28, at the Howard County Historical Society, 8328 Court Avenue, Ellicott City, Md. For more information, call (410) 750-0370.