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.