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The Twelve Oldest Trees on Campus

Categories: Landscape, Trees

Middlebury Magazine asked me to help with a story a month or so ago-they were looking for the 10 oldest trees on campus. Naturally, I gave them 12. There were a couple I just couldn’t leave off, and I walk around and still see a couple more I should have added.

Our campus features many spectacular trees, but surprisingly none of them are very old. Charles Baker Wright, Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and English Literature , in the Middlebury College News Letter of 1931 talks of the story of campus trees, and how early in the history of the college was an old time notion that “trees wouldn’t grow on that hillside”, and how finally in about the 1830’s trees were planted wholesale, so thick that 70 years later Old Stone Row was a ‘veritable thicket’. Other areas of campus were likewise barren of trees, but didn’t have the donations to plant like near the Row. (as always, click on the picture for larger version) (especially to see the guys in the top hats)

Painter Hall in 1879

Painter Hall in 1879

Painter Hall 2014 Note large Sugar Maple in picture, smaller in picture above

Painter Hall 2014
Note large Sugar Maple in picture, smaller in picture above

Some of the more dramatic pictures were taken along the back of Old Stone Row, on the road that was called Waldo Avenue.

Starr Hall 1890

Starr Hall 1890

Starr Hall 2014

Starr Hall 2014

Old Chapel 1875

Old Chapel 1875

Old Chapel 1895

Old Chapel 1895 

 

Old Chapel 2014

Old Chapel 2014

Another sad chapter in the arboreal history of Middlebury is Dutch elm disease, which you can read much more about on other pages in this blog. Many areas presently bare of canopy from shade trees are previous Elm locations. This is not all bad-views from Old Chapel Road to Mead Chapel are greatly enhanced by the clear lines of sight.

A football game in 1900. Note the large elms along the west side of Painter Hall.

A football game in 1900. Note the large elms along the west side of Painter Hall.

Same view 2014

Same view 2014

The Spring issue of the Middlebury newsletter in 1981. Those are elm trees lining Mead Chapel walkway behind the May pole (which Facilities still has stored somewhere!)

The Spring issue of the Middlebury newsletter in 1981. Those are elm trees lining Mead Chapel walkway behind the May pole (which Facilities still has stored somewhere!)

 

2014-no May pole, and sadly no costumes.

2014-no May pole, and sadly no costumes.

Mead Chapel 1942

Mead Chapel 1942

Mead Chapel 2014

Mead Chapel 2014

Trees have a lifespan, like us, and it may be useful to think about tree years the way many people think about Dog years, but with no set figure to multiply.  A redwood is ancient at 2000 years old, Bristlecone Pines date to 3500 years old, while a Poplar tree is old at 40. I’d venture to say an old tree for Vermont is 300, with precious few of them remaining.

A great grandma of all the trees on the Middlebury campus is a spectacular Bur Oak on the north side of the Mahaney Center for the Arts. Fellow horticulturists have estimated an age of easily 250 years old. Even in tree years, this one’s sitting on the porch rocker being waited on hand and foot. Trees like this, particularly oaks, were often left as boundary markers for property, and would be referenced in deeds and other legal documents. Aerial photographs of the area show this tree sitting next to Porter Fields, the combination baseball/soccer fields for years. It was there long before Baseball. I’ve written about this tree before.

Bur Oak at the Mahaney Center for the Arts

Bur Oak at the Mahaney Center for the Arts

Paper Birch is, like all birch, an early successional tree, born to live fast, set seed, and die young. This tree isn’t very old in human years (I’m guessing about 85-90), but a mature birch is only 45-50. Proof that the right tree in the right spot will do wonderful things. This tree would be a grandparent too, one of those impatient ones yelling at the grandkids to keep off the lawn. It is safe to assume this birch was planted by the former owners of the house (the McKinley’s, I think, as that is what we call the house). Paper birch is an extremely popular landscape tree, but prone to many diseases which shorten the lifespan.

Paper Birch at the McKinley House

Paper Birch at the McKinley House

Nearby there is an elm along Route 30 next to the field house. I often wonder about all the construction it’s been watching over the years. Our guess is about 175-200 years old, an old survivor from when elms were transplanted from the woods to line the rudimentary roads of the new country. Old photographs show elms lining both Route 30 and 125, and we work hard to save the few that remain. This one’s middle aged in tree years, elms can go for many decades more than this one has been around.

American Elm at Field House

American Elm at Field House

Norway Spruce grow fast when young, and get leisurely in their middle age. The massive Norway spruce north of McCullough was planted as part of a windbreak to protect the athletic fields next to the gym. Photographs from 1890 show already mature trees next to the baseball field, making this spruce easily over 150 years old. This tree is unusual for a Norway spruce in that the main stems are going through reiteration-the bottom stems forming entirely new trees, so looking up from the base into the canopy of this tree one would see multiple trees sharing a single trunk. This is much more common in Redwoods, but clearly this spruce dreams big.

Norway Spruce

Norway Spruce

 

Old Stone Row and the Main Quad in 1890-the large Norway spruce is in the closer row

Old Stone Row and the Main Quad in 1890-the large Norway spruce is in the closer row

Old Stone Row and the Main Quad 2014

Old Stone Row and the Main Quad 2014

Another perspective on teh spruce row-1892

Another perspective on the spruce row-1892

Same perspective as above 2014

Same perspective as above 2014

Hepburn Hall in 1929

Hepburn Hall in 1929

Hepburn Hall 2014

Hepburn Hall 2014

Up the hill from the spruce is a Black Walnut, probably 80-100 years old. It’s a middle aged tree as well, but was part of the extensive gardens of Maude Mason planted to the south of Hepburn. Most walnuts live to about 150 years old, but in the right location (which I hope this spot is) can go over 400.

Black Walnut at Hepburn

Black Walnut at Hepburn

This walnut was probably planted as part of extensive gardens to the south of Hepburn at the beginning of the century. There was an old cottage nearby as well. The only remnants left of this landscape is a small garden with a plaque on the top of Stewart Hill dedicated to Maude Owen Mason, ‘who planned and planted and tended it from 1916 till 1937′. The garden has since been overcome by Mugo pine, a great example of breaking Tim’s first rule of landscaping-‘If it looks good when it goes in, it’s too crowded’.

Hepburn Hall Gardens in  1937

Hepburn Hall Gardens in 1937

Hepburn Hall 2014

Hepburn Hall 2014

 

The former Battell Cottage, now known as Adirondack House, has two very large Austrian Pines in the front yard facing Route 125. A picture from 1929 shows one of them fully mature, making these an impressive 150 years old or more. In tree years, very old.

Austrian Pines at Adirondack House

Austrian Pines at Adirondack House

Adirondack House-1929 Austrian Pine on right side

Adirondack House-1929
Austrian Pine on right side

Adirondack House 2014

Adirondack House 2014

3 Black Maples, a close relative of Sugar Maple, remain in a row along Storrs Walk next to Old Chapel. This is the area of campus heavily planted in the 1830’s, and these are the only remaining trees left. At 185 years old they are reaching the end of their typical lifespan, but we are actively preserving them, and hopefully will be around much longer. I’ve written of Black maples in the past.

Black Maples at Old Chapel

Black Maples at Old Chapel

Old Chapel -1895

Old Chapel -1895

Old Chapel 2014

Old Chapel 2014

Old Chapel 1900

Old Chapel 1900

Old Chapel 2014

Old Chapel 2014

Old Stone Row 1910-Black Maples in center background of picture

Old Stone Row 1910-Black Maples in center background of picture

Old Stone Row 2014-Black Maple in center left of picture

Old Stone Row 2014-Black Maple in center left of picture

A photograph from 1947 shows a couple of Sycamore trees planted alongside the road across from the Student Union Building, where Proctor is now. The trees were reaching maturity then, so they are only 85 years old, but one is massively large, once again the right tree in the right spot. So much for trees not growing on that hillside.

Sycamore near Proctor

Sycamore near Proctor

Old Student Union Building-(where Proctor is now) -1947 Sycamore tree in center of photo

Old Student Union Building-(where Proctor is now) -1947
Sycamore tree in center of photo

Same view 2014

Same view 2014

Another view 2014

Another view 2014

Near the Gravity monument by Warner science is a Littleleaf Linden, a tree the British call Lime trees. This one sets the state record for size, with an estimate of age of over 100 years. Its growth rate has slowed considerably; she’s reaching old age gracefully now.

Littleleaf Linden at Warner Science

Littleleaf Linden at Warner Science

Aerial photographs from 1942 show the Pin Oak to the south of FIC gracing the front yard of a house there, with Chateau in the back yard. We estimate this tree at about 125 years old, a teenager for an oak.

Pin Oak by FIC

Pin Oak by FIC

Same aerial photograph-an apple planted next to what looks like gardens. This makes sense, as that entire area of campus has a proliferation of Pear trees similarly old we know nothing about. This tree is probably about the same age as the Pin Oak, but quite a bit older in Tree years.

Apple tree by Coffrin

Apple tree by Coffrin

The oldest tree (in tree years) on the campus is also one of the youngest in human years. Yellowwood is a pretty little tree with Beech like bark and pendulous white flowers in the early summer. The tree tends to branch low with multiple trunks, and falls apart after 50 years or so. Ours is probably 75, with multiple steel brace rods holding the trunks together.

Yellowwood tree by Hadley Milliken

Yellowwood tree by Hadley Milliken

Many thanks to the Digital Media archives, where I spent an enjoyable day in front of the woodstove on the laptop-any use of their pictures should go through them (I’m talking to you, Pinterest) All new pictures are my own.

Blind Sidewalk

Categories: Landscape

Landscape architects sometimes speak of ‘desire paths’-a phrase that means exactly like it sounds. Laying out sidewalks, driveways, or trails is considerably harder than it looks. A budding architect can either be a hero for guessing exactly where pedestrians want to walk, or a goat for taking an urban mentality and assuming people will use the sidewalk regardless of location.

Try as we might, the Middlebury campus is full of desire lines. Some are an easy fix. Two new sidewalks cut across the top of the Atwater quad based on dirt paths that had appeared post-construction based on pedestrian traffic flow. One that couldn’t be done, a dirt path from the Johnson Parking lot to Atwater dining, we tried to block with trees and shrubs, but the desire remains unabated. Another one that concerns us is a dirt path from Battell Beach heading toward Milliken Hall. This cuts in a straight line up slope, and is becoming so worn down that it may soon start to erode.

Dirt path behind Allen Hall

Dirt path behind Allen Hall

A new desire path appeared after the renovation of The Axinn Center at Starr Library. The northeast corner of the building, down by Route 30, houses several large classrooms, and students cut across the quad from the Main  library down to that corner.

Not that we blame the pedestrians. It’s cold here. Getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible makes campus life a little more tolerable in January and February. It’s a pretty obvious place for a walk, but the problem is the other walks in the space.

Before my time, the walk ways were redone, and came out beautiful. This is landscape architecture at it’s best. Gently curving paths arc across the space, connecting the buildings that surround the quad. The brilliance of the plan is the fact that they work. In colder climes like ours usually corners are cut, curves straightened, and shortcuts abound. The desire line from the library to that corner was, as expected, straight, and pouring this as a walk would break the beautiful rhythm of the rest of the walkways.

pathways plan view

Then, after one winter storm, the path was beaten through the snow, this time gently arching around some trees, eventually meeting the walkway to the library.

pathway zoomed

With this proof of concept, we were off and running. Last summer we went out to the quad with surveyor flags, and marked a potential route. Some language school students became willing test subjects, and we tweaked the lines for an hour or so until it flowed right.

The other, even more subtle brilliance of the walkway layout in the library quad is the way the sidewalks are blind, hidden from view. I bet few people have noticed this, but a picture makes it obvious.

2013-08-19 07.46.49

View from Route 30

Looking up from Route 30, the quad appears to a large expanse of lawn, unbroken by walkways. The art is in the subtle placement of the walkways. All of them are slightly built up on the route 30 side, and pitch towards Old Chapel Road. Leaning the other way, the flat expanse of the walk would be visible, but the design at present allows them to be blind, not seen from the road. Obviously that couldn’t be done had the road been higher than the quad, but geology and geography was on our side this time.

The new walk was tricky to match this effect. Its placement across the quad required some elevation of the surrounding area, as well as some grading to continue the natural water flow across the lawn. Had this been interrupted the sidewalk would pool water and turn into an icy mess.

2013-08-14 14.36.04

Atwater Construction-Turf Battle

Categories: Atwater Contest

Doing large construction projects at Middlebury comes with a unique challenge, that of time. Most colleges and universities have various programs running throughout the summer, like summer camps and classes. Middlebury, though, has an entire college, the Language School. This intensive 6-9 week program requires the full attention of the students, so we in Facilities try not to tear the whole place up. Therefore, most of our large projects, like the Atwater landscape, we schedule for the couple of weeks from the end of August to the start of Fall Semester.

So Turf Battle begins. We’re winning, by the way, turf tends to lose when faced with an excavator. I will admit its been quite an experience. Most landscape restorations I’ve done at Middlebury are all uphill-starting from the beginning to the very end, the continual process is one of improvement, the next day looking better than the first.

The Atwater landscape at present looks like hell.

Fear not. We’re laying a good foundation, and things will come together quickly. Much of what we’ve done is laying a good foundation (literally, in some cases) for the landscaping on top. I took a bunch of pictures last week to share on the progress.

One of the first parts was the renovation of the ADA ramp to Atwater Dining Hall. The old ramp, made of blacktop, was ripped out, and after regrading, replaced with concrete, now meeting proper codes for width, pitch, and a flat landing area at the bend.

This sidewalk, on the west side of Allen Hall, was added. To the left of the sidewalk in the triangle formed by the walks will be a large planting bed.

Another view of the new walk. This area previously was all crushed stone, put down to prevent mud, as the area was so heavily trafficked that no grass could grow.

This was the beginning of the patio, after layout. The grades here are tricky-the natural lay of the existing ground wanted to send water right toward the building. This is where the excavator came in handy.

View of the patio looking north. This type of patio is tricky to pour and stamp. The concrete is pre-colored in the truck, then stamped on site with what for all intensive purposes look like giant rubber stamps. The process takes a while, so only a square a day can be done, lest the concrete set up before it all gets stamped.

A freshly poured corner piece. We kept the sidewalk through the center of the patio looking like sidewalk in order to keep it’s function. Hopefully tables and chairs won’t be placed on the sidewalk to keep the way clear for access.

A view of the berm looking north. The berm is made of topsoil removed from all the sidewalk and patio excavation, so is a sandy/rocky mix. The berm will be topped with 6″ of good topsoil, to help the trees and lawn that will be planted there. It is hard to get a feel for the size of the berm on pictures, but suffice it to say it is quite large in person.

Here is a view of the berm looking south. The rise at present is pretty close to 4′

One of my favorite parts of the project, not showing up well with my weak cell phone camera. This view is from the top of the berm looking towards Chipman Hill. While during the design competition we’d discussed saving the view of the hill, what surprised me that I hadn’t thought of is the new perspective of the Atwater Dining green roof afforded by the higher topography of the berm.

The project won’t be done by the time the semester begins. Our goal is to have most of the loud construction finished shortly. There are a couple of squares of patio to finish, as well as the two sidewalks leading west from the patio. The next step, which should begin this week, is the planting. We’ll be starting with the planting around Atwater Dining, and will expand out from there as other pieces of the project fall into place.

 

A Commencement Day

Categories: Random Thoughts

4:30 comes early. I like to say I’m a morning person, but the alarm goes off, it’s summer, it’s dark, and well, that’s just too early. I drive to campus, and park behind Kenyon Arena. All facilities staff park there, so the incoming guests can park closer, and we walk to the Service Building, not talking a whole lot. I’m mainlining coffee. The walk towards campus feels a bit like a fish swimming upstream, as most of the senior class is walking away from campus, towards Alumni Stadium to watch the sunrise. Both sets of people, though, look a little bleary eyed and tired. They get to go take a nap later.

The work day starts at 5, with all hands walking the campus picking up any trash we may find. It’s never really all that bad, more like sweeping the front porch before 6000 guests arrive. We walk our snow shovel routes, with others dispatched to hot spots. I like this time of day, the calm before the storm. I also like ending up near the stadium as the sun rises. The shouts, whoops, and hollers of the graduating class as the sun comes up quickly gets subdued, and all becomes quiet, maybe as the reality of the light of day hits-it feels like an end, and a new beginning for them.

At 6 or so the swarm of workers descend to the commencement site, the main quad below Mead Chapel. The tents were erected previously in the week, including the main tent, technically called the clamshell. Some in Facilities spent part of yesterday setting chairs in front of the tent. It’s a delicate balance. While it’s nice to have some of the many many thousand chairs we need to place already up, we could spend a large chunk of the morning drying them off from dew or, even worse, rain. Towels work best, although we have resorted to backpack blowers in the past.

My day begins in earnest as well. My job is to set up the flowers in front of the commencement tent. There is a giant seal of Middlebury College right in front of the stage, and 300 red geraniums are placed at the base. First secret exposed? I leave them in the trays, and mound mulch around them to make them look like a planted bed. All life is a stage.

 

To give you some idea of how long Facilities plans the commencement ceremony, I first get asked to order the geraniums in September. I say you bet, but I don’t worry about them all too much. (perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this?) I buy the geraniums from a local wholesale grower, so 300 is just a tiny little drop in the bucket. It doesn’t even make a dent in the greenhouse. He gets the stress though, and the fact that they have to be right shade of red, so he doesn’t pick on me too much when I’m ordering plants 9 months in advance.

While I’m there working, I’m also watching the second coolest job for the day, the hanging of the flags. Behind the tent, hanging off of Voter Hall, are flags of every country represented by the graduating class. I was told we had to buy 9 new ones this year. I counted 59 flags when they were done, but I was supposed to be working, not counting, so there may have been more. They use a lift truck, 65′ boom, and I bet it takes them a good hour or two. One year, someone in Facilities that was attending the festivities looked up, and noticed one of the flags was for the Boston Red Sox. Oh, the horror, and the humor. Mostly horror, but we had to admit it was pretty funny. We got into the student’s room, where he thoughtfully leaned the correct flag against the wall after he leaned out his window and made the switch.

The lift truck hanging flags

I also rent some shrubs to do a fake little planting where the tent guy lines get staked in front of the clamshell. When I first arrived on campus, I noticed a plethora of White Potentilla and Dwarf Garland Spirea planted here, there, pretty much any little corner. You see, they used to come buy them off me when I worked up the road at Greenhaven, for the very same purpose I now use Ivory Halo Red Twig Dogwood (not white flowers, but a pretty variegated leaf). I don’t want to fill the campus exclusively with a plant that looks for great for two weeks in the spring, so I just rent them and bring them back to Greenhaven the next week. They don’t make a habit of it, but I still have a little bit of influence. (I also tend to help a customer or two while I’m there-old habits and all)

There is a huge amount of activity taking place around me. It’s too much for a blog post, it could be it’s own blog. The brunt of it, though, is chair setting. Some chairs get set the day before, but the bulk are set this morning. And by bulk, I’m talking thousands. We have a tractor trailer we keep filled with chairs, I think it’s about 4000. The trailer is parked on the road, and trucks and gators are used to ferry them to the setters, following the lead of the string setters, who assure the chairs are placed in straight lines.

Seriously, we use string and stakes to set chairs. Not because the person setting chairs is a civil engineer, although that helps, but because looking at 5000 chairs set out, well, they just NEED to be straight. For a great video picture diary of chair setting, view the pictures taken by the communications department of the (very wet) day before.

The early arrivals for the ceremony begin arriving around 8 or so. There’s a couple key places to sit, and they usually go first. One  is the area around a Red maple, which offers some key shade most years. The other isn’t in the chairs at all, but up the hill towards Gifford, where the day beforehand the landscape department sets all the Adirondack chairs out. Watching commencement while reclining in a comfy chair? Oh yeah, that’s the way to do it.

Graduates start arriving soon as well, and get staged east of Old Chapel. I usually run into Matt Biette, the extraordinary head of dining, for the first of several times today, handing out water and breakfast sandwiches to the seniors. Starch and re hydration-Matt’s a genius.

Time to pull out, get out of Dodge, and pretend we aren’t even there. Some years, the landscape department goes and pulls weeds, radio close by. I have another semi-official job, though, that of weather-boy. Luther Tenny, Chair General (you did click that link on chair setting above, right?) calls me occasionally, wondering what the weather radar looks like. I’m the local weather geek, next to Luther, who is in an information tent on site, so isn’t close to a computer. I was watching this year by Android phone, as it was a spectacular day to pull weeds. The year Bill Clinton was the speaker several thunderstorms were forming in upstate New York, and I was freaking out. 6000 plus guests, and a storm on the way? I deferred to the experts, and called the National Weather Service in Burlington, who thought I was nuts, until I explained just exactly why I was calling, and they set my mind at ease. It rained for about 3 minutes, and then the sun came out and all was well. So, really, I’ve never seen the ceremony.

11:30 all the workers start traipsing up the hill towards Mead Chapel, where we get fed. All parents and graduates get fed by Matt Biette and crew, and that’s another blog post all together. Middlebury has an amazing home-grown dining service, and the food is great. They are brave feeding the landscape crew before the guests, but they certainly cook enough. Second Matt sighting-right below Mead Chapel telling guests walking up the hill that food is on both sides of Mead, and the lines are never too long. It seems like almost every student stops to talk to him.

The lure of the food works, and the chairs and stage empty soon enough, and facilities goes berserk in reverse. It’s easier to take things apart than put them up, and the chair trailer fills again. We also store chairs all over campus, so trucks are dispatched to places I haven’t even seen yet in my 5 years here. It’s a logistical nightmare, and always goes off without a hitch. I take apart the flowers, and plant them in the coming week by Admissions.  We’re done by 3 or 4 PM most years.

Breakdown