Preservation ABCs: T is for Trees

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.


T is for Trees


Now that it’s spring, it’s the perfect to appreciate trees in your town. Seen here is King Street in Burlington, VT.

When talking historic preservation, the instinct is to think of buildings and architectural styles, even though we know by now that preservation goes far beyond architecture. And the built environment encompasses streets, buildings, landscape, objects and unique characteristics of its setting. Aside from the benefit of providing oxygen to us, trees play an important role in historic properties. Often trees are contributing elements to the historic significance of resources.

Trees vary from region to region. A sugar maple in Vermont, a palm tree in Florida, a long leaf pine in North Carolina – trees aid in creating the setting. They provide a human scale, as well as a connection between the natural and built environment. Historic neighborhoods and towns often have tree lined streets, filled with trees that have matured. Historic farmsteads can have trees 100+ years old, planted when the house was built to mark time or provide wind protection. Newer properties and developments have smaller trees, planted with the intention that they will grow large and provide foliage and protection from the elements.

When streets lack trees it can be for a few reasons. Some species of trees suffered blights, wiping out entire cities of trees. The Dutch Elm disease struck the United States as early as the 1930s. Over the course of a few decades, American towns and cities lost their beautiful Elm trees. Historic photographs of a town might show beautiful tree lined streets, whereas today there might be very few trees on those same streets. In other cases, trees have been removed for construction reasons, whether road widening, sidewalks, parking lots, demolition, etc. Fortunately, trees are earning more respect as contributing to historic districts and properties.

Take note of the trees where you are. Streets look wider without trees, but perhaps the openness is less inviting. Trees provide shadows and tell nature’s story as the seasons change. Without so many trees (and other plants/bushes) would the seasons mean as much? (Certainly, my excitement for warm weather would not nearly be as great as it is!) Can you imagine your favorite street, campus, or park without its trees? Next time you’re describing a historic resource, a house or a district, pay additional attention to the trees. Chances are that they contribute to its setting and historic integrity.

3 thoughts on “Preservation ABCs: T is for Trees

  1. Jim says:

    The street on which I grew up was once much more tree-lined than it is now. A bad storm 10-15 years ago knocked down many, many trees, especially those in the tree lawns, which leads to a fairly barren look in some blocks. Some photos from that neighborhood:

    As I drive the old roads across Indiana and visit my state’s towns, I’m building a pet peeve against downtowns that plant trees in the name of beautification — because as they grow, they increasingly block the view of the old buildings.

  2. Earth Ocean Sky Redux says:

    Trees, really huge old trees, are a huge topic of conversation where I am in Bedford, NY. We’ve had storm after storm after storm where giant trees have taken down power lines for two weeks at a time. ConEdison, our power company, has routinely gotten permission from residents and towns to cut back, and in many cases, cut down, massive trees that sit on their strip of land that abuts the road. It’s a double-edged sword. There’s no greater joy than looking at or sitting under a fabulous old tree but residents seem understanding of culling for the sake of safety. My neighborhood was destroyed in October last year, so many trees down that the National Guard had to come out; it took a more than a week to cut down trees before the power company could come in. Long story short, in some cases, cutting down trees, as sad as it seems, is a reasonable choice.

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