“What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown.”
--Jefferson to Martha Randolph (from Philadelphia), 1793
Sometimes a good tree gets planted in what turns out to be a bad location. That’s exactly what an engineer recently discovered near Monticello’s South Wing. In the mid-20th century, a young American sycamore sapling (Platanus occidentalis) was planted on the West Lawn close to the South Wing’s stone retaining wall. As the tree grew, its branches spread invitingly over the South Terrace and provided welcome shade to visitors. At the same time its roots slowly, but insistently, burrowed against and under the South Wing’s ca. 1802 Jefferson-era wall. Over time the pressure exerted by the tree has caused the historic walls to crack. Although the damage is minor now, the weight of the sycamore would eventually cause a large portion of the wall to collapse if left unchecked. Good tree; bad location.
In the coming weeks, trained arborists will carefully remove the sycamore. Removing a tree of this size from the West Lawn of Monticello presents a technical challenge. The safety of our visitors and the wellbeing of the historic buildings require a tedious process of cutting and craning away sections of the tree over the course of several days. Once it is removed, the wood will not be wasted. Local artisans will reclaim and honor the tree’s beauty, creating a variety of handcrafted items.
After the sycamore is removed, the cherished shade it provided will be missed. But the tree’s absence will create a new opportunity for historical discovery. Soon archaeologists will begin to excavate along the South Wing wall as part of a project to stop water from seeping into the soon-to-be restored spaces below. During these excavations, we hope that the archaeologists will find evidence of the mulberry trees Jefferson planted along the wings in the 18th century. These “trees of alcove” as Jefferson called them would have provided Jefferson, his family and his guests with much-appreciated shade as they enjoyed Monticello’s terraces. Although the restoration of the mulberries is still years away, the removal of the sycamore and the archaeological investigations are exciting first steps in revealing the landscape as Jefferson would have known it.