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A witness reborn

By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2011

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The National Park Service calls them witness trees - specimens that have stood for decades and “witnessed’’ key events, trends, and people in American history.

In March, Massachusetts lost one of its most significant witness trees when a roughly 200-year-old elm at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline was felled after a long battle with Dutch elm disease and other ailments.

Now, however, through two innovative projects, the beloved Olmsted elm may get new life.

Second-generation cuttings from the old tree are being nurtured at Arnold Arboretum with plans to replant the strongest where the original once stood, effectively cloning the elm.

And to honor the iconic tree’s spirit and history, the elm has become part of the Witness Tree Project, a groundbreaking collaboration between the park service and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

Wood from the Olmsted elm was milled and shipped to RISD. There, students in a class that combines history and furniture making will design and create objects inspired by the history surrounding the tree, drawing from the life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, who chose the great elm as a key feature of his Warren Street estate’s south lawn.

“This class really puts the wood in a historical context,’’ said RISD professor Daniel Cavicchi, who along with Dale Broholm created the Witness Tree Project. “We study everything about Olmsted, from his concepts of nature to the politics of urban development, which was so important to him.’’

“It’s a great way to teach,’’ said Broholm. “It brings so much more meaning to the role of object creation.’’

Broholm came up with the initial idea after a family visit to Gettysburg, Pa., where trees old enough to have “witnessed’’ the Civil War battle there were being cut down as part of a restoration project.

Late last month, 12 students representing disciplines that include architectural design and jewelry design traveled from Providence to tour the Olmsted site and get first-hand inspiration for their creations.

Mark Swartz, a National Park Service ranger, pointed out key aspects of the site’s lush landscape and Olmsted’s vision in shaping it. He spoke about the designer’s aesthetic and ideals, his attraction to pastoral vistas and naturalistic settings that could offer respite and calm for stressed city dwellers.

Olmsted, responding to America’s unprecedented growth in the mid-1800s, helped shape the country’s transition from a rural to an urban society, championing the preservation and development of green open spaces to nourish body and spirit in an age of increased industrialization and materialism. He believed public parks should be bastions of democracy, providing access to natural beauty for all.

A passionate writer and Renaissance man with interests ranging from experimental farming to public health, Olmsted brought a wide range of knowledge and insight into reshaping often unfriendly landscapes into verdant, picturesque works of art for public enjoyment. His most celebrated designs include New York City’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and Greater Boston’s extraordinary 5-mile “emerald necklace’’ of linked parks, ponds, and parkways.

Olmsted’s affinity for elms was something of a signature.

“Olmsted is a variation on Elmsted, which means ‘place of the elms’ and was the name of ancestral property in England,’’ Swartz said.

When Olmsted moved his home and office from New York to Brookline in 1883, he established the first full-scale landscape architectural practice in the country.

His design ideas extended to the transformation of his own estate, which included clearing all other trees around the magnificent elm, allowing it to dominate the view from the windows of his studio.

Olmsted’s legacy is also reflected inside the rambling house, which began as a simple farmhouse and was renovated and expanded over the years by Olmsted and his sons to include enough studio space for 70 workers during the firm’s peak year in 1930. The studios evoke the fertile atmosphere of vivid imaginations hard at work.

During the Rhode Island School of Design tour, students marveled over huge drafting tables, walls of wooden file drawers, and a cubby where a phone once was installed, its walls covered with doodles. The highlight was the person-size glass-and-wood Wagenhorst “time machine,’’ a 1904 device that made blueprints and looks like something from an H.G. Wells story. It greatly simplified the process of copying the reams of designs created by the firm.

As part of a multiyear construction and preservation project involving the site’s historic buildings, grounds, and collections, the National Park Service is refurbishing the living area of the main house to resemble the décor of Olmsted’s day, including painstaking restorations of cypress washboard ceilings and pebbled stucco walls. The house is due to open to the public next summer, once new exhibits are installed.

However, it is outside that one gets the best sense of Olmsted’s remarkable vision.

The design school students wandered the grounds, strolling the rock garden path and huddling around the roughly yard-wide stump where the giant elm once stood. Their discoveries offered context and deeper meaning to the wood they were about to use in their creative projects.

“It’s like taking a part of history and creating your own history with it,’’ said RISD student Adam Lowe.

Classmate Taylor Colantonio added, “It’s great to be able to work with wood that has such historical significance. It’s a chance to give it new life.’’

Meanwhile, new life of another sort is being nurtured over at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, where propagator Jack Alexander tends to a brood of 4-inch cuttings with the same genetic makeup as the historic tree. Alexander initially cut 47 twigs this summer from a healthy 25-foot elm on the Olmsted property’s back lot, the tree itself grown from a cutting of the original elm. (Thus any cloned tree from the process will be a second generation.)

It’s a tricky process, and only 11 of the 47 cuttings were still alive last week. Alexander said the next challenge will be getting them through the winter, when they will go dormant in a cold greenhouse until next spring’s growing season. If all goes well, survivors could grow 6 to 8 feet tall and be ready to replant perhaps five years from now.

“It’s maybe 50-50 odds that one will survive to replant,’’ he said, “but I have two right now that have already started to put some growth on, and that’s a very good sign. It’s very promising.’’

With a lot of care and a little luck, one of those tiny cuttings may be destined to grow into another mighty elm with its own history to witness.