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The Giving Trees: Fallen Elms As Functional Art

Local woodworkers repurpose the John Brown House's iconic elm trees

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The John Brown House is an important part of Providence’s history. It’s the city’s first real mansion, built in 1788 by John Brown, the statesman, merchant (and, unfortunately, slave trader) who was an early benefactor of Brown University. You might note the similarity in those two names. Not a coincidence.

Anyway, the house is a big deal. There’s a room inside painted in a panoramic scene of George Washington’s inauguration, which at the time it was painted, was a recent piece of history. John Quincy Adams went so far as to say that the house was “the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent.” 

Now, the house belongs to the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS), and is a museum of the Brown family and early American life in Providence. But, there’s been some trouble recently - the house has steadily been losing the iconic elm trees that line the lawn. One came down last year from an unidentifiable illness, and another is slated to come down this spring.

Ok, you might say, it’s just a tree. They get cut down all the time. What’s the big deal?

“The elms provide such an ambience,” explains Kathy Klees Clarendon of RIHS. “We hold our Concerts Under the Elms in the summer there. It’s such a magical place in the city. The front age on Benefit Street is a city block. It’s an oasis in the city. It’s a place to breathe, to walk, to sit quietly and watch the sunset. The trees make it what it is."

However, RIHS is turning the loss into an opportunity. When the first tree came down last year, they put out the call to woodworkers and furniture makers all over New England, inviting them to come make art out of the more-than-century-old tree. A furniture-making professor at RISD is currently curing planks that will be ready to build with in a couple of years. Six woodworkers from Cape Cod Woodturners came to Providence to retrieve pieces of the tree, which are now being returned to RIHS to become parts of their permanent collection. The bowl and vase photographed above were made by Michael Grady of Forestdale, Massachusetts, and more are on their way. The Society is determining the best use of the pieces now, whether that’s keeping them in their permanent collection, or auctioning off some of them at a fundraising event. Because, take her word for it, replanting that lawn isn’t going to be cheap.

“What we want to do going forward is come up with a planting plan, and a plan that is staggered so we’re not doing the whole grove at once,” she explains. “We’d like to put in three or four trees this year, and more in a few years, so we’ll have a continual, safe grove of trees. We’d also like to diversify a bit. We’ve met with Doug Still, the city forester of Providence, and he’s made some recommenda- tions on some different species that we should consider.”

While they’re currently fundraising through private donors to help with the associated costs, RIHS needs the public’s help, too. Both donations, and adopting an individual tree, are options. At a time when there are so many good causes to give to, it might seem easy to overlook something like an elm tree in need. Those trees, though, and the house they surround, are an important part of who we are and where we’ve been. As RIHS Executive Director C. Morgan Grefe says, “when this elm was planted, our new State House was just being occupied by our state’s leaders – and Rhode Island was the wealthiest state in the union... This tree stood tall as Rhode Islanders gave their lives in foreign wars, and somehow still taller as we welcomed countless thousands of people from dozens of nations to our shores. In 1938 this elm weathered the legendary hurricane and 40 years later it looked majestic swaddled in the snow that stopped Lil’ Rhody cold. This very tree sheltered the many religious and ethnically diverse children who grew up on Benefit Street before it was known as “a Mile of History.” This tree saw women get the right to vote and witnessed the election of our nation’s first African-American president... This tree saw our families grow as we watched it do the same. It will be sad to say goodbye, but it was a life well lived.”

52 Power Street. 273-7507, www.rihs.org