The ‘Olmsted Elm,’ Reincarnated
Yesterday, I had a chance to head over to the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline. Olmsted is the father of American landscape architecture and the site is home to Olmsted’s offices. From Central Park in New York to the Emerald Necklace in Boston, Olmsted — perhaps more than anyone else — shaped the American ideal of the perfect public space into actual dirt, stones, grass and trees.
And there was one tree in particular: the Olmsted Elm. A graceful, 200-year-old giant that was a center piece of the landscape at the Brookline historical site.
“There was an elm in front of his father’s house that he laid down and looked up and watched the branches going in so many different directions and spreading out,” naturalist Jerry Wright told WBUR’s Bob Oakes last year before the elm was cut down. “And he would often wonder: What path am I going to take, and what path am I going to grow in? From a young age, there was this spiritual meaning to trees.”
Last year, old age and the ravages of dutch elm disease finally forced the National Park Service to cut down the Olmsted Elm. But the tree’s journey continues. Now, wood from the Olmsted Elm is back at the historic site in Brookline — albeit, this time as sculpture.
“So, some of these objects, you know as a farmer he would have used an ax to clear the land. So Samantha Anderson created an ax,” said Dale Broholm, a furniture design instructor at Rhode Island School of Design. “The drafting curves there would have been of the type that an engineer would have used during the course of laying out a landscape.”
Broholm has the calloused, well-worn hands of a man who’s worked with wood for more than 30 years.
“[Elm] is one of the tougher woods to work…the grain in it co-mingles,” Broholm said. “It’s not necessarily running straight along. But it has a beauty to it and that’s really quite compelling to work with.”
As Broholm puts it, the Olmsted Elm is what’s called a “witness tree.”
“Witness trees are trees that have been identified by the National Park Service as being witness to a significant historic or cultural event in our nation’s history,” Broholm explained. “So we get the trees from the park service, bring it into the class, and teach about what the trees have witnessed through seminar and also studio where they create objects that reflect what the trees witness.”
The Witness Tree Project is in its fourth year at RISD. Students have carved wood from a tree that once stood at the Theodore Roosevelt National Historic Site, a boxwood from George Washington’s birthplace, and a pecan tree from a former Baltimore Plantation.
Students shaped the honey colored wood from the Olmsted Elm into three types of sculpture: objects that reflect tensions around public spaces today, how Americans used parks for leisure in the 19th century, and objects Olmsted might have used early in his career, like a plumb bob, a level and a box camera.
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