Life after death: Inside the afterlife of the East End pin oaks
Once upon a time, it was the most iconic image of Washington University: two straight rows of high thin pin oaks lining the path straight up the front of campus, where the twin towers of Brookings rose up above the rest of the landscape.
Kent Theiling, who grew up in St. Louis and has spent the past nine years as the University’s manager of grounds and chief horticulturist, said that the trees were a symbol of Wash. U. in his childhood.
“Being born and raised in St Louis, you always knew, if you were traveling down Skinker, when you would go by Washington University because the pin oak trees were there,” he said.
Stop at the intersection of Skinker and Lindell today, and you’ll see a very different picture. The turrets from Brookings will still be there, but the pin oaks have been replaced by construction cranes and scaffolding as the East End Expansion project rumbles through its eighteenth month.
But campus has not seen the last of those iconic oaks. Twenty-five miles from their original home at the Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Mo., the pin oaks—or what is left of them, at least—lie in storage, waiting for a homecoming.
The famous pin oaks east of campus were first planted in the 1930s. The technical term for the pathway they formed is an allee—an alley bordered by trees. At their height, there were around 70 pin oaks lining the allee, and they provided that iconic lead-in to Brookings.
By 2014, however, it became clear that the trees would have to come down. The plans for the biggest construction project in the history of Washington University required completely leveling the East End, trees and all.
But under the surface, the famous pin oaks were not at their healthy best. Pin oaks naturally grow in swamps and lowland areas, Theiling explained, and typically start dying at around 80 years old. By the time East End Expansion plans were finalized, only 43 of the original 70 pin oaks remained, and those survivors were brittle and susceptible to weather.
“When you would have a significant storm roll through campus, you could almost bet you would go out there and there’d be limbs of significant size that would be laying out on the lawn area,” Theiling said. “That’s a trigger in my mind that we have a safety concern out there. To be quite honest with you, the East Campus Transformation project, it almost was kind of a blessing in disguise.”
In other words, even before groundbreaking at the East End, the pin oaks were dying. According to Theiling, no matter what, the trees were going to have to be cut down.
“As much as I love trees, sometimes you have to be realistic and have a good approach on how to take care of the trees and do the right thing at the right time,” he said.
But Theiling and other administrators around the University were eager to not simply get rid of the trees. Of those 43 trees, however, virtually none of them were in a condition to be moved and replanted, so doing so was not an option.
Instead, a collaboration between the Office of Sustainability, Facility Planning and Management and a number of independent sources from around St. Louis decided that if they could not save the trees themselves, they would save the wood.
Matthew Bernstine, who is the University’s senior urban designer, has taken one of the lead roles in designing spaces for the East End and has become heavily involved in the project to repurpose the wood from the pin oak allee. He said that, initially, he was saddened to realize that the trees would be coming down.
“I went to the Sam Fox School for graduate school; and so, that was my front door coming in as a student, and it became a symbol, or a marker,” he said. “I think it was tough to sort of digest that it was necessary.”
Once he accepted that the trees were coming down, however, Bernstine started the process of figuring out exactly how the wood would be saved and used.
“Pin oaks are wonderful trees, and they live for a long time, but, unfortunately, they’re not used for standard architectural structural elements. So, we couldn’t build anything that would need a lot of pressure,” he said. “But we did find that we could use them for furniture, and we could use them for accents and finishes. And so, there were a whole host of things that made us excited to continue down that path.”
Bernstine and the rest of the team involved consulted a number of St. Louis furniture designers who specialize in designing from reclaimed wood—ANew Nature, Rustic Grain and David Stein—who helped identify which trees could be used.
In the end, 25 trees were salvaged, milled and stored for future use. Those 25 trees produced about 12,000 board feet of wood.
“You could roughly equate 100 board feet to a table. So, 12,000 is a lot,” Bernstine said.
Right now, the wood is in the last legs of the waiting game known as air drying. All 12,000 board feet that remain of the old pin oaks are tied down in a very specific way at Wash. U.’s Tyson Research facility that allows the air to run over the wood and dry it. This process takes around 16 months after which the rest of the moisture is removed through kiln drying. Then the wood is ready for use. The question, however, still remains: How, exactly, will the wood be used?
“We’ve taken the wood to a point where we know that it’s capable of being used, and we’re searching for projects within the University that can highlight these amazing trees because the wood is gorgeous,” Bernstine said.
Among the ideas that Bernstine said are bouncing around at the moment is using the wood for furniture or as accent walls. Bernstine said that he hopes that the wood can be used somewhere in the new East End, to create a nice circular arc to their story. Either way, he said, he hopes to figure out a way to acknowledge that the wood came from those old pin oaks.
“Our position was…it needed to be indicated in some way that these were part of the East End,” he said. “Whether it’s on the work itself or in a sort of document that lives at the building.”
For his part, Theiling is excited that after growing up admiring the original East End allee, he will help put a new one in place. Once the months of construction are complete, trees will once again line the path up to the Brookings steps. It will not be quite the same, however, as in the name of ecological preservation, the new East End will be lined by a more diverse array of trees.
“It’ll be an allee of trees, diverse species, five different oak species,” he said. “Like the pin oaks were when they started, but you’re going to get varying heights and not straight line allee. But, you know, there will still be a clear view down the lawn area from Skinker and Lindell to Brookings.”