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Park Bids Farewell To Historic "Olmsted Elm"

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

National Park News

Frederick Law Olmsted NHS bid farewell to its famed “Olmsted Elm” last Wednesday. This historically significant but failing tree was cut down in several stages with the help of a crane during a two-hour period.

The tree had been declining in health and structural stability for a number of years and was recently declared a hazard to both visitors and the adjacent historic Olmsted House. As a result, the NPS made arrangements for its removal at the end of March. Plans are in place to remove the remaining root system in coming months. The NPS intends to then plant a genetic clone of the original tree at the same spot once it has grown to sufficient size.

Most of the wood from the historic tree is being donated to the Rhode Island School of Design’s “Witness Tree Project,” a liberal arts and studio art course that teaches history and material culture to art students using wood from historic trees. This coming fall, students will study Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons’ professional work, philosophy, and landscape design achievements and then create artworks with the elm wood inspired by their studies. The park plans to display the students’ creations at a future exhibit.

The Olmsted Elm was on the property when renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted bought it in 1883, moving his family and business to 99 Warren Street in Brookline. While Olmsted and his stepson John C. Olmsted removed other trees from the estate as part of their redesign of the landscape that year, they kept this particular tree. It was to become an important feature of the landscape on their two-acre property. The tree’s soaring presence and classic vase shape served as a key design element of the site’s South Lawn well over a century since that time. It witnessed the growth and long tenure of the Olmsted firm there, as well as the property’s eventual transfer to the National Park Service in 1980.

Over the past two years, the Olmsted Elm showed symptoms of advanced decline, including crown dieback, bark and branch shedding, spreading infections of root and wood decay fungi, and widening of a vertical seam along its main trunk. It also endured outbreaks of Dutch elm disease over the past decade.

Last summer, the NPS had to remove a 24-inch-diameter limb that had cracked just above the trunk. Olmsted NHS staff, with the assistance of the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, consulted arborists and research scientists specializing in care of older trees, and the consensus was that the tree posed an immediate hazard and needed to be removed.

The National Park Service recognizes both the significance of elms to Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape designs generally and the historical significance of this particular elm to the landscape at Fairsted, the name Olmsted gave to the 99 Warren Street property.

“American elms played a key role in a number of Olmsted’s landscapes, whether the pastoral Long Meadow at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park or the more formal Mall for promenading at Central Park,” explains Supervisory Park Ranger Alan Banks. “You might call the elm Olmsted’s ‘signature tree,’ as the name ‘Olmsted’ is a variation of ‘Elmsted’ or ‘place of the elms.’”

To help engage the general public in memorializing the tree, Olmsted NHS created a special Facebook page accessible from its website, www.nps.gov/frla. There, individuals for whom the Olmsted Elm has special significance have been invited to submit reminiscences, anecdotes, and photos. The website also contains more detailed information on the elm removal and plans for the future of the landscape.

Any further questions can be addressed to Ranger Mark Swartz at Mark_Swartz@nps.gov or 617-566-1689, extension 216.



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