Magnolia on the March
After more than a year of preparation, a massive tree just moved 100 feet across the Folger landscape, marking the start of a renovation that will add exhibition galleries, collaborative research spaces, an education lab, social gathering spots, and more.
On October 15, a large, beloved Southern magnolia on the west side of the Folger Shakespeare Library—the side closest to the US Capitol—did something that big trees rarely do. It left the spot where it had stood for almost nine decades to begin a three-day trip to a new site some 100 feet away—much like the trees of Birnam Wood moving toward Dunsinane, an image from a witches' prophecy in Macbeth. In the play, soldiers carrying tree branches make it look as though the forest is in motion. At the Folger, however, a large tree was going from one place to another in real life.
"It was very exciting," says Ruth Taylor Kidd, the Folger Chief Financial Officer, who is managing the renovation project, including moving the magnolia. "It was the first major phase of the renovation work. It has also already had an impact on light in the building." In addition, "the view of the building is now completely different," much like it was before the magnolia grew so large. "The corner is visible in a way it hasn't been in 60 to 70 years. I like to think Mrs. Folger and Mr. Folger would be excited about what we're doing."
Environmental Design, a leading tree-moving company based in Texas, teamed up with Washington, DC, arborist Keith Pitchford of Pitchford Associates to take on the project. While the work to prepare the magnolia started a year and a half ago, the steps to set up and perform the move took place over several weeks this fall.
During its journey, the tree traveled about 10 to 15 feet at a time, after which, due to the limited working space, the soil that was excavated from in front of it was relocated behind it. From the sidewalk, Kidd says, "you could see the tree move. You had to watch it against the facade of the building, though, so that you could see its motion relative to the windows. Otherwise, it was imperceptible."
A Growing Tree
Based on an early photograph, the magnolia was small-ish and slender when it was planted before the Folger's opening in April 1932. Ever since, it has been growing and expanding. "A magnolia doesn't grow as tall as other trees, it grows out. It becomes very big around," says Paul Cox from Environmental Design. The best type of site for a Southern magnolia, says Pitchford, "is an open landscape, where it gets a lot of room to spread its canopy. It needs a big lawn area, like the one at the Folger. That's a perfect growing area for that tree." By now, the Folger tree has become so large that its trunk has a circumference of more than 100 inches, making it a "heritage tree" that is protected under DC law.
"There is something very important about a living landscape next to a marble building." — Folger Director Michael Witmore
As the plans for the Folger renovation came together, the location of the tree became a challenge. Architect Stephen Kieran of KieranTimberlake viewed the landscape, which would be designed by OLIN landscape architects, as "the ideal way to bring people to a new entry" to the building, says Folger Director Michael Witmore. The magnolia, however, was right in the middle of that space. The Folger needed "a plan for the tree that honors its special role and status, while making way for a landscape that invites people in," says Witmore. Ultimately, the Southern magnolia was positioned near the rear corner of the Folger building, where it would anchor the garden. After that decision came the next step: safely moving it there.
A Massive But Delicate Operation
Moving such a tree is no small feat. "Trees are moved all the time, from the nursery to a landscape, or within a landscape. What's not so common is moving trees of this size," says Pitchford. "Typically, a root ball is six feet across," he says. "This is 33 feet across. It's hugely different." A firm like Environmental Design, which specializes in large trees, was needed to do the job.
To get ready to cut out that shape, Cox says, about a year before the move, "you go around the tree at a specific diameter and make a very small trench, cutting the roots." At the Folger, the roots were cut in the spring of 2019, with the plan of moving the magnolia in the spring of 2020. During the intervening time, an irrigation system watered the tree, its condition was regularly checked, and the cut roots grew by several inches as the tree recovered. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the move was delayed to the fall, giving the tree even more time to restore itself. This September, the area between the tree and its destination was cleared. The nearby Puck statue and fountain were disassembled and carefully stored, and the circular driveway was taken out.
To get ready to move the tree, the next step was to dig a broad trench around the root ball, which was tightly wrapped with burlap and a field fence of goat wire—a heavier form of chicken wire. The team then used a hydraulic hammer to drive large metal pipes through the soil under the roots. These were used to construct a platform, which was then maneuvered onto large, heavy bladders, a key part of Environmental Design's ArborLift system. The collective weight of the magnolia, including the root ball, and the pipe platform came to about 220,000 pounds. The team cabled an excavator to the platform to pull the tree forward for the first time. From then on, an excavator pushed the structure instead of pulling it. Once the tree arrived at its destination, the soil around it was regraded and mulched, and a new irrigation system was put in place. Pitchford will monitor it for years to come.
History and Heritage
Just as the Southern magnolia grew in size over time, says Sara Schliep, the project archivist at the Folger, its significance did as well. "In the 1930s, it was kind of a puny tree. Now it's a big, grand centerpiece that's come to mean more to the people who work and come to the Folger," she says. In the archives, Schliep has found several items related to this tree and others at the Folger, including a letter about another Folger magnolia, which came from a local home's front yard. The most striking archival item is a magnolia leaf, with an ink inscription that includes the phrase "First Magnolia Leaf / When tree was planted." We don't know which Folger magnolia the leaf is from, but it was almost certainly picked up in 1931 or 1932.
A tradition has also grown up that associates Emily Folger with the Folger magnolias and that leaf, but this may be a myth. "What I have been able to find suggests something else," Schliep says. "Based on how the leaf is stored, I don't think Mrs. Folger actually picked it up. I think that Ernest Crawford of the National Shakespeare Federation picked it up and sent it to her." Perhaps one reason for the assumed connection between Mrs. Folger and the magnolias is the timing of Mr. Folger's death, which happened before "the building was built and the landscaping was completed," Schliep says. "So people associate Mrs. Folger with those choices."
Schliep, who is the first full-time archivist at the Folger, is in the process of further organizing and developing the Folger's institutional archives, as well as collecting new materials. For this tree move, she has added a second magnolia leaf, which is considerably larger than the first, and a magnolia cone, both of which the Folger conservation lab is now preparing for storage.
A Living Landscape
While Mrs. Folger may or may not have taken an interest in magnolias, "from what I can see in the landscape today, the Southern magnolia was a very popular tree in Washington back then," says Pitchford. "There's quite a few of them in that 80 to 100 year old category. It's a Southern tree; you see it in Georgia and the Carolinas regularly. In Washington, we are probably near the northern terminus of its range. But we definitely have adopted it in DC, and it's done very well."
As for the tree that just moved, he says, "I think it's fantastic. I love it. It's a beautiful tree, it's got great character and big, low sweeping limbs. There is so much history in that part of Washington, and that tree has lived through a lot in this country's history. I think it's as important as any great masterpiece of artwork. It's a tree with tremendous history and I am so glad it could stay in the landscape."
Such trees and other bushes and plants "awe and inspire us and remind us of growth, development, and continuity," says Witmore. "There is something very important about a living landscape next to a marble building. What will shift now is that from the corner, which is where most daytime visitors arrive, you will see a landscape inviting you into the building. And you will still see this tree from that corner as well. It's an important character in the landscape, a living link to the moment when the building opened."
Esther Ferington is an editor, writer, and content developer based in Alexandria, Virginia.
Lead photo by Lloyd Wolf | Magnolia blossom photo by Julie Ainsworth