Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Kelly received a B.L.A. from the University of Georgia in 1971 and a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia University in 1973. After graduating, Kelly traveled in Europe for a year, first in Italy and later in England, where he was greatly influenced by Picturesque and romantic eighteenth century gardens. He returned to New York in 1974 to work for the newly formed Central Park Task Force, where he remained through 1977. In May of that year, he established Bruce Kelly Associates in Manhattan. One of his first clients was the Central Park Conservancy, for whom he completed an inventory of the park that supported the Conservancy’s master plan and subsequent restoration work. In 1981 Kelly (with Gail Guillet and editor Mary Ellen Hern) curated the exhibition and book The Art of the Olmsted Landscape, which helped elevate the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted. The exhibition that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art established Kelly’s reputation as an Olmsted advocate. Kelly continued to work in Central Park throughout his career, notably designing the three-and-a-half-acre International Garden of Peace, also known as Strawberry Fields. Dedicated in 1985, this enclave, located near West 72nd Street, was gifted to the city by Yoko Ono in memory of her late husband, John Lennon, and is enlivened by lush plantings that represent 161 nations. He also led the 1987 rehabilitation of the park’s Shakespeare Garden, and contributed to plans to expand the Turtle Pond, and those to rehabilitate the Ramble and the Great Lawn.
In 1986 Kelly partnered with former University of Georgia classmate David Varnell, collaborating on significant public projects. They produced master plans for Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri; Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. Kelly privately maintained a roster of clients for whom he designed residential properties, including the Southampton estate of Angier Biddle Duke and the Pittsburgh residence of H. John Heinz, III. Kelly died in Manhattan of AIDS in 1993.