This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, who founded American landscape architecture and likely designed your favorite park. Among many of Olmsted's commissions was his work on the U.S. Capitol Grounds, a delightful design he used to accentuate the U.S. Capitol Building. In his submission for the Architect of the Capitol's annual report, Olmsted wrote, "the ground is in design part of the Capitol, but in all respects subsidiary to the central structure."
Olmsted incorporated hardscapes – fountains, lanterns, lamps, walkways and terrace walls – into his plan for the U.S. Capitol Grounds. He also was very careful and deliberate with his placement of trees to afford attractive views of the U.S. Capitol.
Olmsted explained his aesthetic, and the central role of trees in it, in an 1882 essay, in which he resisted colleagues and tourists who saw "nothing in a park but an airing apparatus, to be made attractive by decorations" and argued instead for something more holistic: "scenes and objects [that] touch us so quietly that we are hardly conscious of them."
Today we know that trees are a valuable tool for improving public health, reducing harmful pollutants and runoff, as well as moderating summer air temperatures. Studies have shown that trees have both physical and mental health benefits.
The Architect of the Capitol's (AOC) arborists, gardeners and grounds teams work very hard to ensure the health and wellbeing of the plants and trees across campus. "We have a very robust Tree Risk Assessments Program that follows industry standards to determine if trees are structurally sound, while qualitatively assessing the potential for tree failure," said Melissa Westbrook an Urban Forester with AOC. "We have less than 40 of the original Olmsted trees remaining on campus but each of them is really important to our team," she said.
The team has been monitoring two Olmsted trees closely for the past five years and have continually implemented mitigation strategies, such as selective pruning and cabling that have allowed us to retain the trees safely in the landscape.
"Unfortunately, while performing an advanced risk assessment, our arborists found that progressing decay throughout portions of these trees creating unnecessary risk to the public," said Jim Kaufmann, the AOC's Director of Capitol Grounds and Arboretum.
The two trees, Fagus grandifolia (American Beech) and Styphnolobium japonicum (Japanese pagoda), will be removed for safety reasons this spring. The agency will replace these trees to reflect the design intent of Olmsted, and while ensuring the new trees help maintain a sustainable and resilient landscape.
"Both trees, planted around 1894, are quite large and our team has worked hard to keep them as healthy as possible for nearly 130 years. They are very special to us and we wanted to figure out a way to help them live on," said Kaufmann.
A small portion of the felled trees are being reserved to sell in the gift shops in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center. U.S.-based artisans will use the wood to craft items to eventually be sold in the gift shops.
The AOC also reached out to the District Department of Transportation, Urban Forestry Division to use the largest portion of the wood from the Olmsted trees to improve District school grounds and parks. "Imagine kindergartners enjoying an outdoor lesson sitting on a piece of landscape history right here in our nation's capital... it's just a cool way to pass on the Capitol Hill legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted," said Kaufmann.
Westbrook agreed, "I think it is fitting that a new generation may get the opportunity, during the 200th anniversary of Olmsted's birth, to learn about the critical relationship between trees and a healthy urban environment."