CHATHAM – Construction of a retaining wall along the sidewalk in front of the Eldredge Public Library won't require the removal of a large stately horse chestnut tree that overhangs Main Street.
If the tree is healthy, that is.
The initial plans to improve the front lawn of the historic library called for removal of the tree, which probably dates from the 1930s, called for removal of the tree, which was in the way of a wall that will be built along the sidewalk. The wall will run the length of the library property and will be several feet high to accommodate raising of the level of the lawn behind it. Its height will taper toward the west, which is where the tree is located.
The base of the tree is now against the edge of the sidewalk, near the corner of Library Lane. The plans call for installing new sidewalks along with the wall and a small plaza for the Founder's Monument that current sits in front of the library. The retaining wall would also serve as a place for people to sit, said Sean Riley of Coastal Engineering.
Both the historic business district commission and the planning board have asked that the plans be altered to save the tree. Before that's done, said Principal Projects Planner Terry Whalen, a certified arborist will be asked to evaluate the health of the tree, to ensure that it is not diseased and will survive the planned changes.
The $483,000 project, which also includes reconfiguring the library's parking lot, adding new lighting and creating an accessible path from Main Street to the Library Lane entrance, originally called for replacing the horse chestnut tree, placing the new tree farther back from the sidewalk. To accommodate the existing tree, landscape architect Jay Olmsted said at last week's planning board meeting that the monument plaza could be made slightly larger and the sitting wall on the west side shortened.
The tree is the first on a walking tour of notable Chatham trees published by the Friends of Trees, Inc. President DeeDee Holt said in a letter to the planning board that while there is no record of when the tree was planted, it probably dates from the 1930s when many American elm trees were also planted along Main Street.
“The chestnut has thrived while most of the elms eventually succumbed to Dutch elm disease,” she wrote.
“As to the historic value of this tree one need only view the library from across the street to see how this old tree complements the historic streetscape around the historic library,” Holt wrote.
“I think it's a stately tree,” agreed Olmsted, who said he was a distant cousin of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. “I think it has a presence on the streetscape that has an advantage to the town.”
The Friends of Trees walking tour guide describes the horse chestnut, also known as a buckeye, as having “handsome white or red flowers in May, followed by a nut-like toxic fruit.” Because it can grow large, it is usually planted in parks or other large open areas. Holt said the species can be resilient; a similar tree at the corner of Main Street and Mill Pond Road survived surround construction when the Mayflower complex was built several years ago.
Planning board members suggested that a space could be made in the wall to accommodate the tree, which could be filled in later should it die. Olmsted said the two-foot caliper tree could live for 100 years if it is healthy.
Chairman Kathryn Halpern said the wall doesn't have to be the same size on both sides of the plaza.
“You don't have to balance that,” she said. “This town has never been balanced.”
The board asked to see revised plans of the wall area as well as a structure proposed to cover outdoor book bins, which some members thought was too large.
As part of the landscape plan several other trees on the library property will be removed replaced by new ones, but none are as large and impressive as the horse chestnut, said Holt.
“Of course we're very pleased that they see the value that is provided by these big old trees,” she said.
It was uncertain when the evaluation of the tree would be done.