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The Trees 


Commonwealth Avenue 


The Trees 


Commonwealth Avenue 


Charles Sprague Sargent 

Printed for the Author 

Ill C2ciiaagci 
MAR 2 1316 


The Trees of Commonwealth Avenue 

To Messrs. Walter Hunnewell, F. G. Webster, and Walter 
C. Baylies: 

Dear Sirs : — In compliance with your request I beg 
to submit the following statement in regard to the 
trees planted five years ago on Commonwealth Avenue 
between Dartmouth Street and Massachusetts Avenue. 

The plan of using only two rows of trees on Com- 
monwealth Avenue was first suggested, before trees 
had been planted on the Avenue west of Dartmouth 
Street, by Mr. F. L. Olmsted, the distinguished land- 
scape-gardener, to whom the City of Boston is in- 
debted for the comprehensiveness and beauty of its 
Park System, and by myself. In 1880, at the suggestion 
of the late Charles H. Dalton, at that time Chairman 
of the Board of Park Commissioners of Boston, Messrs. 
Olmsted and Sargent prepared a plan for planting 
Commonwealth Avenue. This plan proposed the 
removal of the four rows of trees then standing between 
Arlington and Dartmouth Streets and the planting in 
well prepared soil of two rows of trees from one end 
of the Avenue to the other. This plan was approved by 
Mr. Dalton and other residents on the Avenue but was 
not accepted by the City Government. The artistic and 
practical principles on which this plan was based are : 

First: In order that a dignified vista of tree trunks may be 
secured each tree should stand opposite a tree in another row, and 
that the distance between the trees should be practically the same. 
These are fundamental rules now almost universally adopted in 
formal planting of this character. 

Second: In order that uniformity in size, habit, color, and 
character of the bark and foliage, and in the time of foliation and 
defoHation of the trees may be obtained that only one variety 
should be used. 

The Committee recommended setting the trees ten 
feet from the street line rather than in the middle of 
the planting spaces that they might have as much space 
as possible in which to extend their branches before the 
growth of these was arrested by the branches of the 

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trees on the other side of the central walk, and not be- 
cause it was believed that trees ten feet from the street 
would, as has been suggested, appear more dignified or 
beautiful, or better suited to their surroundings than 
trees standing twenty feet from the curb. 

Commonwealth Avenue from Dartmouth Street to 
Massachusetts Avenue was planted in 1880 or 1881 by 
order of the Common Council with four rows of trees, 
the trees in the four rows standing opposite each other, 
so that the transverse distance between the trees of the 
inner rows was only about twenty feet, the trees in the 
rows being about forty feet apart. Between Dartmouth 
and Exeter Streets only American Elms were planted, 
and between Exeter Street and Massachusetts Avenue 
a large variety of European Elms was used. 

There are several Elms popularly called English Elms 
in this country ; among these are the Hedgerow or Field 
Elm, now common in southern England, the Scotch 
Elm, the Dutch Elm, and the Smooth-leaved Elm, and 
of each of these, with the exception of the first, there are 
many seminal varieties and probable hybrids. These 
species and varieties are very different in habit, rate of 
growth, hardiness, and time of foliation, and many of 
them are unsuited for street-planting in this part of the 
country owing to their irregular habit and want of har- 
diness ; and of the so-called English Elms only the Field 
Elm in the peculiar form common in southern England 
has proved to be a good street tree in Massachusetts. 
It is this tree which was largely planted in eastern 
Massachusetts toward the end of the eighteenth century 
through the agency of Major Paddock, who established 
a nursery of this Elm in Milton; and it is this tree 
which has grown to a larger size in Boston than any 
other planted tree. This particular variety of Elm 
does not produce seeds, and as it can only be propa- 
gated by suckers or by grafting, it is necessary to use 
grafted trees as Messrs. Olmsted and Sargent recom- 
mended in their report of 1880. 

Before the trees between Dartmouth Street and Mas- 
sachusetts Avenue had been planted for twenty years it 
became evident that this plantation could not be kept 


much longer in good condition. Between Dartmouth 
and Exeter Streets the American Elms of the inner 
rows, standing only twenty feet apart, were already 
dangerously crowded and were being destroyed by the 
more vigorous trees of the outer rows. Several of the 
foreign Elms west of Exeter Street had already died; 
others were unhealthy, and the unsatisfactory results 
which the mixing together in formal street-planting of 
different kinds of trees were becoming more and more 
evident every year. 

Two courses seemed open to the Park Commission, 
— to let things remain as they were and allow the 
trees, badly selected, planted too close together in in- 
sufficient soil, with little chance of surviving for an- 
other twenty-five years, to die ; or gradually to remove 
enough trees to make room for a new plantation made 
with one sort of tree and in a manner to insure for 
these trees the longest possible life. 

If the Commission had adopted the first plan the 
appearance of the Avenue would have become less 
satisfactory as the trees gradually disappeared, and in 
a comparatively short time it would have been neces- 
sary to take down all the remaining trees, leaving the 
Avenue without any shade until new trees had grown. 
By adopting the second plan it was possible to replant 
the Avenue in a manner to secure healthy and long- 
lived trees, and at the same time to preserve for several 
years enough of the older trees to give the appearance 
of a planted avenue until the younger trees had at- 
tained sufficient size to produce this effect. For this 
reason I recommended the Commission to change 
gradually from the four-row plan into a two-row plan. 
From the plan prepared in 1880 by Messrs. Olmsted 
and Sargent the plan recommended by me to the Com- 
mission seven years ago differs only in one particular. 
Instead of setting the trees ten feet from the street, as 
recommended in 1880, the trees were planted in the mid- 
dle of the loam space, because it was possible in this way 
to preserve for some years a larger number of the trees in 
the outer rows than it would have been possible to save 
had the new trees been planted nearer the roadways. 


There is no question that four rows of trees in Com- 
monwealth Avenue would produce a better effect than 
the two rows, and that by the four-row plan the central 
walk and the two roadways would be more quickly 
shaded than by the trees in two rows. It is probable, 
moreover, that eight rows of trees would produce a 
better effect than four rows, but, unfortunately, certain 
conditions are fixed in the Avenue. The planting space 
in Commonwealth Avenue is one hundred feet wide. 
The growth of the English Field Elm in this neighbor- 
hood shows that in a space one hundred feet wide it is 
not possible to keep in good condition more than two 
rows of these trees for a period long enough to enable 
them to reach a height and size commensurate with 
the width and dignity of the Avenue, and that the 
trees even in two rows must become cramped and 
injured by the trees opposite them long before they 
can attain half their size. 

Some idea of the probable growth of the young 
trees now planted on the Avenue can be formed by an 
examination of the row of Elm trees planted in 1876 
by the Water Department of the City on Beacon Street 
near the Pumping Station of the Chestnut Hill Reser- 
voir. These are grafted trees of the same variety and 
character as those planted in 1904 on Commonwealth 
Avenue. They have received no especial care. The 
ground on which they stand has not been cultivated 
for many years and has not been enriched, and the 
trees have not been pruned for a long time. These 
trees cannot be considered to have made an unusual 
or remarkable growth; and they have not reached 
more than a quarter of their full size. Many of these 
trees now have a spread of branches of forty-eight feet, 
and the smallest spread of branches of any of them 
does not appear to be less than forty-five feet. If 
the trees on Commonwealth Avenue grow no better 
than these Reservoir trees, they should, in 1934, extend 
their branches three feet over the central walk and over 
the roadways ; and nine or ten years later the branches 
of the trees in the two rows should interlock over the 
central walk. At this time the trees would not be over 

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one-third of their full size. Trees of this variety of Elm 
from fifty to sixty years old in the neighborhood of the 
City have a spread of branches varying from fifty to 
seventy feet. 

The criticism that the two rows of trees west of 
Dartmouth Street will not harmonize with the four- 
row plan east of Dartmouth Street does not need dis- 
cussion, for the four rows can hardly be said to exist. 
Many of the trees planted in the four rows have died; 
others had become so unhealthy and deformed that 
their removal has been necessary. Of the one hundred 
and eighty-two trees originally planted in 1860-62 
between Arlington and Dartmouth Streets only eighty- 
five are now standing. Ninety-seven of these trees 
have gone, besides a number of other trees planted 
from time to time on this part of the Avenue to replace 
dead trees. Of the number of such replanted trees 
there is unfortunately no record. 

The condition and appearance of the trees in these 
plantations seems to offer sufficient arguments against 
an attempt to grow to maturity four rows of trees of the 
first size in a city planting space only one hundred feet 
wide and the use of more than one kind of tree in one 
city street, as is now proposed by the Park Commission. 
Their plan has in my opinion these objections : 

First : The trees alternate in the rows instead of standing 

Second : Each tree will stand only forty feet from its neighbor 
except at the end of the blocks where the space between two of the 
trees will be twenty feet. The plan, therefore, does not provide 
symmetry or sufficient space to permit the trees to grow for more 
than a few years. 

Third : The trees in the outer rows, having the benefit of the 
light and space from the adjoining roadways, will grow more 
rapidly than the trees in the inner rows which will become crowded 
and deformed, and at the end of a few years the symmetry of the 
plantation will further be injured by the inevitably unequal size of 
the trees. 

Fourth : The plan is impracticable and cannot be successfully 
executed for it calls for the planting together of larger and smaller 
trees, a system which is never successful, as has been shown in 
Commonwealth Avenue between Arlington and Dartmouth Streets 


where from time to time unsuccessful efforts have been made to 
plant small trees to fill the vacancies caused by the death of older 
trees. A still better example of the results which follow the mixing 
of large and small trees together in street-planting is found in Berlin 
where'^lintter Den Linden young trees have been planted to take 
the place of older trees as these have given out. This plan has 
proved so unsatisfactory that an entirely new planting has now 
been made. The planting space is about the same width as in 
Commonwealth Avenue; and two rows of trees have now been 
used to replace the four rows of the original plantation. 

Fifth : The plan provides for the use of several distinct varieties 
of trees different in habit, rate of growth, and hardiness. The use of 
more than one kind of tree in one city street has been given up in 
all modern systems of street-planting, because different kinds of 
trees mixed together do not produce the formal and symmetrical 
effect which is needed in street-planting, and which can be pro- 
duced only by the use of trees of one variety. The want of sym- 
metry resulting from the use of several kinds of trees in one street 
is well illustrated in Commonwealth Avenue between Arlington 
and Dartmouth Streets, which may be compared with the Beacon 
and Charles Street malls of the Common where the good effect 
produced by using continuously one kind of tree is well shown. 

Sixth : The adoption of the plan as it calls for the moving of all 
the trees planted in the spring of 1904 means unnecessary delay in 
supplying the Avenue with shade. These trees have grown rapidly 
and they already have long and large roots. Their removal from 
their present positions will retard their growth for several years. 
Some of them will probably die from the operation, and it may be 
expected that they will never become as good trees as they would 
have if they had not been moved. 

Seventh : The adoption of this plan involves an unnecessary 
expenditure of money. In 1903-4, upon the recommendation of 
the Park Commission, the City spent ten thousand dollars in 
planting the two rows of trees on Commonwealth Avenue between 
Dartmouth Street and Massachusetts Avenue. The Commission 
now recommends a further expenditure of about twenty-four 
thousand dollars to undo its work of six years ago. This is 
something more than the waste of public money, for it destroys a 
good plan in the attempt to adopt another plan which it is im- 
possible, under existing conditions, to carry out. 

Yours very truly, 

C. S. Sargent. 

Brogkline, Mass., June 15, 1909. 


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