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NIH Record

Not So Ancient After All
Trees Recycled for Navy, Parks Restoration Projects

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

While President's Day (Feb. 16) was a holiday for most federal employees, it marked the end of the road for two large, old white oak trees on the former Wilson estate, which were cut down to make way for construction associated with the new Clinical Research Center. In an irony of the calendar, one of the trees dated back some 192 years to post-Revolutionary times, when Thomas Jefferson was in the midst of his White House tenure. Both timbers are slated for reuse in historical exhibits.


Old No. 154, just prior to falling.

It had been thought by some community members that the older of the two trees, an 80-foot oak dubbed No. 154 in a census of trees taken on the CRC site, may have been 300 years old (though an arborist retained by NIH estimated a range of 175-300 years). An effort was mounted to spare the tree, but a variety of options to do so were considered too costly and disruptive by NIH. The National Capital Planning Commission reviewed the debate and concluded last December that NIH could go ahead and remove the oaks. In an effort to respect nature's endowment of old trees, however, NIH amended the design of Center Drive to retain one old oak that had been scheduled to fall, save another dozen trees by realigning a construction fence and preserve a third of the trees affected by CRC construction by replanting them elsewhere on campus.

This vine-bedecked oak is an estimated 92 years old, and will go to Pierce Mill in Rock Creek Park. It will be used to craft a new waterwheel shaft at the mill. Parts of a third oak will also be used in the restoration of millhouse cogs and wheels.

Photos: Bill Branson and Yong-Duk Chyun

Large cranes arrived on campus Saturday, Feb. 14 to delicately cart away the two oaks' massive trunks, whose bulk had to be preserved intact in order for them to fulfill their new roles: a 35-foot segment of No. 154 weighing more than 14 tons was claimed by the U.S. Navy for use in restoration of a historic battleship -- the U.S.S. Constitution. A 20-foot piece of the second tree, about 92 years old, went to the Friends of Pierce Mill, an historic old structure in Rock Creek Park in need of a new waterwheel shaft. Crews from the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over Pierce Mill, conducted removal of the lesser oak.

"NIH is really pleased to have found a way to ensure that these oak trees will retain a place in history through their use for restoration of projects important to the community and country," said Jan Hedetniemi, director of NIH's Office of Community Liaison.

The trunk of No. 154 weighed in at more than 14 tons, and required a crane to move. The oak will be used as planking on a restored Revolutionary War-era battleship -- the U.S.S. Constitution ("Old Ironsides"), ported at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.

"The Navy was thrilled to have the tree," she reported, "because it has such a close grain. It will be used to replace worn decking on the ship."

A 12-inch cross-section of No. 154 was sliced out for preservation as a possible heirloom for the future CRC. A highly respected millwright, Derek Ogden of Madison, Va., has been retained to care for the relic, which might one day serve as an historical exhibit; its rings could be indexed to highlights in both medical and NIH history.

It was last fall's controversy over removing the trees that brought the availability of fresh, stout oak to the attention of the Friends of Pierce Mill.

Special cranes remove massive segments of the old oaks. Trimmers removed most of the branches before the trunks were cut down on Feb. 16.

"They heard the publicity, and had been searching for a source for a new waterwheel shaft," explained Hedetniemi. "So we donated that, too."

There was another diseased oak in the vicinity of the CRC site, though not within it, that had to be cut down, she added. Pieces of that tree were also given to Pierce Mill for use in millhouse cogs and wheels.

Only the sawdust and small limbs from the three mighty oaks met the same fate as more minor flora on the site, but this, too, was not inglorious -- the chips will be reused eventually as mulch.

Timber! Old No. 154 topples after presiding over the Tree Tops portion of the Wilson estate for almost 200 years.

The reconfigured Center Drive permitted groundskeepers here to replant 78 trees, a task Hedetniemi characterized as arduous. She said NIH has been in touch with the Audubon Society about establishing a wildlife habitat somewhere on campus. "There is some hope that we can do it in conjunction with the Navy, across the street," she said. "The same experts who advised the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station about their habitats is helping us decide."

Hedetniemi said that no one showed up on Feb. 16 to protest the trees' removal, though authorities here anticipated that there could be some opposition. It turns out that not many people could tell tree No. 154 from any number of its distinguished neighbors. "It was tucked behind a tree we call the Elephant oak (so named because of its peculiar shape, with a bough extending nearly over Center Drive), which is set to remain standing."

Hedetniemi says those who opposed the felling of old No. 154 "did a great service in bringing awareness not to indiscriminately remove ground cover and big trees."

How To Handle a Wheel of Wood

Four or five years from now, if all goes well, a slice of white oak No. 154 measuring roughly 1 foot high by 5 feet wide will lie within a plexiglas exhibit somewhere inside the new Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center, the preliminary excavations for which resulted in 154's demise.

Envisioned is an index of key moments in the history of medical research, associated with some of the 192 annular rings that testify to the tree's age. It's probably a cinch that ring number 192, counting outward from the core, will say something like, "Ground broken for NIH's new CRC."

A lumberjack exposes the massive diameter of oak No. 154, a segment of which will be preserved for a planned CRC historical exhibit.

Removal of the cross-section was not undertaken recklessly. Rather, it was more like organ transplantation, with great care taken not to impose undue stress on the oaken coin. NIH has retained a highly regarded millwright, Derek Ogden of Madison, Va., to advise on the project. For more than 40 years he has worked with large oaks, and is an expert in the field of historic wind and water mill restoration. A connoisseur of logs, he cautioned NIH that he "does not usually get involved with preserving a cross section of a green slab," but outlined a plan nonetheless, taking care not to guarantee complete success.

Just as time is of the essence when transplanting a heart or lung, Ogden says it's crucial to get the oak slab waxed and bound in chains. "Every hour delay will allow the piece to stress relieve," or tend to come apart, he warned.

"What we do with large oaks is to coat the end grain immediately with a water soluble wax such as Mobil CER," he explained in a letter to NIH groundskeeping chief Lynn Mueller. "The to slow the air drying process on the ends, which is at a much greater rate than the surface of the wood. I am not sure what might happen with a slab about 12 inches thick and 60 inches in diameter. It would, I am sure, be difficult to keep in one piece unless carefully dried under some sort of controlled conditions for quite a long time." Ogden guessed this might take 3-4 years. "If you tried to rush the process, it will quickly split with several shakes and probably break into several pieces."

Made in the Shade

He suggested taking the cut from as low down on the trunk as possible "and immediately hold (it) together around the diameter with two chain binders, (send) to my workshop where I will coat both ends with Mobil CER, and then see what it does for the next 12 months in the shade. We would really have to watch it during the summer, particularly if it were hot. I would also have to treat the piece to prevent woodworm problems."

Ogden says the slab could be returned to NIH in a year, but would have to be kept out of direct sunlight and remain bound for 2-3 years. He doesn't get involved in the fine sanding that would be required before final display.

While the slab won't be ready until after the millenium, the preparation time is but a tiny fraction of the tree's actual life. What's 3-4 years when you've been around for 192?

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