Alexandria lost one of its oldest residents last Friday morning; one that witnessed history in the making during the American Revolution while enjoying breezes coming off the Potomac River.
But its existence is not over — only being transformed.
Designated a "Historic Tree" by the City Council in 1980, it was added it to a list of 14 trees established by the Bicentennial Tree Commission to commemorate the nation's 200th birthday. This gargantuan white oak graced the landscape at the site of the former Second Presbyterian Church on the southeast corner of North Quaker and Janney lanes for nearly 300 years. Then, like many who grow old and less resistant to threatening disease, it succumbed.
But unlike its human counterparts, reincarnation for this majestic specimen is not just a theory.
Jack Perkins, project manager, Elm Street Development, the firm developing the site purchased from National Capital Presbytery into eight single family homes on half acre lots, decided to donate the wood from the tree to Historic Woods of America (HWA). A private firm located in Fredericksburg, founded and owned by William E. Jewell, HWA specializes in reclaiming old growth trees and finding creative uses for the wood.
"We are very sad to have lost the tree. It was a tremendous asset to the site and the community. We went to a lot of effort to plan this site around that tree. It was important to us that the wood from the tree go to a good use," Perkins said.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE tree suffered from a disease known as hypoxylon canker exacerbated by borer infestation, according to both the developer's arborist Edward Milhous, the president of Trees Please in Haymarket, and City arborist John Nolle. They both agreed the tree was dying.
"Borers and hypoxylon canker disease are indications that the tree is in steep decline. Nothing can be done to stop the progression of either the insects or the disease at this point, and this tree will
be dead within a year," Milhous told Perkins in a letter dated October 30, 2005, following his October 20 inspection.
In May 2006, Milhous and Perkins met with Nolle to again evaluate the tree's condition. The only change was further deterioration exhibited by one half of the tree's crown being dead and defoliated.
Following that meeting Milhous again wrote to Perkins explaining, "Pruning the dead portion out would leave a lop-sided tree with huge wounds from the cuts, and decay would immediately begin to compromise the structural integrity of the tree." If left to stand, Milhous pointed out that future homeowners would have to remove the tree "within a few years at substantial cost."
Nolle concurred with the decision to remove the tree. "It's unfortunate that we lost the tree. We have a lot of old trees in Alexandria and we will continue to lose them. That's why it is so important we continue to plant trees wherever possible so that future generations can enjoy what we now enjoy from those that lived here before us," he said.
"The disease that got this giant white oak is always around. It's a common disease and takes advantage of older trees in stress," Nolle explained.
DIFFERING FROM the legendary phoenix, the white oak will not have to rise from ashes to live again. Jewell's goals and services are squarely focused on the reclamation, salvaging and creative repurposing of historic trees and timbers. HWA works exclusively with trees that have fallen in storms, are diseased, unsafe, or are being removed for construction.
Jewell has been hired by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association to reclaim trees that have been lost to old age and weather, some planted by George Washington himself. He has been featured on episodes of "New Yankee Workshop," in which master woodworker Norm Abram fashioned a drop-leaf table inspired by Martha Washington's bedside candle stand from wood reclaimed by Jewell.
"Like all the trees I reclaim there is a great deal of history with this magnificent white oak. I have to find the total story and recreate that to make it interesting to the public," Jewell said.
"But, the first step is saving the tree's wood," he said. That was accomplished last Friday morning when its dismembered parts were loaded on his vehicles for transport to his south Stafford County studio.
"I look at each log and try to find the best part of that individual log for each project. After I saw the wood, it air dries for days before it goes into the kiln," Jewell said.
"Before we start work we find customers who want certain items. For each tree I have some idea of the best use for that wood. It can be as coffee tables, desks, bookcases or whatever. I'm hoping that some of the people in Alexandria will want things made from the wood of this tree. It would be a perfect continuation of its second life," he said.
Originally incorporated in 2003, HWA actually was founded by Jewell, whose background is a mechanical contractor and builder, on a whim. "I was driving past George Washington's Grist Mill one day in 2001 when I saw them cutting down a large sycamore tree. It was six feet in diameter. The tree was so badly damaged it had been filled with concrete in an attempted to preserve it," he said. "I stopped and started talking with the grounds manager of the Estate. He told me that George Washington had actually tied his horse to that tree when he came to the Grist Mill. However, it had become a hazard to tourists visiting the mill. That's why it was being taken down.
"When I asked if I could have a piece of the tree, he [told me to] take as much as you want. That got me started. I still have that tree since it was so badly damaged. Although I have made some small things from its wood," he said.
Another Mount Vernon specimen reclaimed by Jewell was the large pecan tree just off the south side of the Mansion porch. It was irreversibly damaged in Hurricane Isabel.
BORN IN THE District of Columbia and raised in Prince George's County, Md., Jewell has spent much of his life exploring the mountains, forests and deserts of America. Throughout his travels he has drawn creative inspiration from a wide range of woodworking artisans.
Jewell's medium varies from highly figured hardwoods and burled woods to cactus skeletons from deserts to other material from around the globe. The design of his pieces is adjusted to the natural features of the wood, so the design features the wood — not the other way around, he emphasizes.
The spirit of his work, Jewell says, serves as both a remembrance and appreciation for the many mysteries of nature. "I believe that by resurrecting these pieces from nature — by giving them a second life as works of art — they can once again be appreciated for the magnificent creations they once were," he said.