This Old Tree with Doug Still
The Mies van der Rohe Honeylocust of the Alfred Caldwell Grove (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 5
Published November 11, 2022
Doug Still: 0:00
What does a big, old, thorny honeylocust tree on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago have to do with Ludvig Mies van der Rohe, one of the towering figures of 20th century architecture. Would you believe this tree and its species have a place in the history of modernism, specifically its iconic landscapes? Professor Ron Henderson is here to talk about his favorite tree at IIT, about Mies van der Rohe and his colleague, Alfred Caldwell, and how the honeylocust became the feathery urban forest powerhouse it is today.
I'm your host, Doug Still, and welcome to This Old Tree.
This Old Tree theme song - Dee Lee: 0:37
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me about what it's like to be this old tree....
Doug Still: 0:57
Think I can speak for a lot of people when I say that we sometimes take honeylocust trees for granted. If you live in a city in the eastern half of the United States, you've undoubtedly walked underneath the shade of a honeylocust tree thousands of times, whether walking along the street, traversing a corporate plaza, or strolling through a local park. They are everywhere with their irregular form and branching patterns, fine foliage, and ability to withstand the toughest of urban conditions such as drought, salt, and neglect. As an urban forester, I know that within the larger goal of selecting trees to plant for diversity, the readily available honeylocust tree was the species to choose for the most difficult of situations, saving other more "interesting" species for places where they're more appreciated.
Well, to all Gleditsia triacanthos everywhere, I humbly apologize. It took the research and appreciative eye of my friend Ron Henderson to wake me up out of my maybe slightly condescending attitude to see how beautiful this tree is, and to look at it freshly through the eyes of Mies van der Rohe, his landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, and other mid 20th century modernists.
Ron Henderson is Professor and Director of the Landscape Architecture and Urbanism Program at the Illinois Institute of Technology or IIT in Chicago. He's also Principal of Lirio Landscape Architecture based in Newport, Rhode Island. He has a broad range of research and interests including landscape based urbanism, gardens and arboricultural practices in China and Japan, and his own gorgeous botanical drawing, which has been exhibited at the United States National Arboretum in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Gardens of Suzhou, and numerous articles on landscape architecture and urbanism. His current research includes the Driverless City Project, which focuses on the urban design implications of driverless and autonomous vehicles. He's also my longtime friend. Ron, welcome to the show.
Ron Henderson: 3:08
Doug, I'm happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Doug Still: 3:10
The center of attention today is a 70-year old me. honeylocust tree that stands outside your design studio on campus at IIT. It's a tree with a distinct place in the history of landscape architecture and modernist design, which you're going to tell us about. But before we get into all that, could you just describe the tree for our listeners, in your own words?
Ron Henderson: 3:33
Something that most people would notice first about the tree is that it's thorny. It's a Gleditsia triacanthos, the honeylocust. It's situated on the south side of IIT's Crown Hall, fairly close to the building, maybe only 10 or 12 feet off of the building. It's probably 24 to 26 inches in diameter. Honeylocusts are what we refer to as an open habit or a picturesque habit tree, which means that their trunks are not necessarily straight, and their canopies are not symmetrical. So they kind of range in their branching patterns. They're also pinnate leaf trees, which means that their leaves are made up of many small leaflets, right?
Doug Still: 4:26
It's actually double compound.
Ron Henderson: 4:28
Yeah, some leaves are pinnate, some are double pinnate, and sometimes they're pinnate and double pinnate, even on the same tree.
Doug Still: 4:37
I say "pinnate," have I been saying it wrong this whole time?
Ron Henderson: 4:39
Oh, I don't know. [Both laugh]
Doug Still: 4:42
But yes, it's a very feathery leaf.
Ron Henderson: 4:45
It is. So they're fern-like. And what that does is, it means that the sunlight penetrates the tree canopy. It's not a very dense leaf pattern. So light penetrates the tree canopy and reaches the ground, which means it's also a tree where grass and herbaceous layers of plants grow quite well under honeylocust.
Doug Still: 5:13
I think what distinguishes it for me is that irregular form you were talking about. I can tell that it's a honeylocust tree from 200 feet away or more. Bending branches, and the fine texture to the leaves.
Ron Henderson: 5:26
Exactly, and I think that's one of the reasons why this was a tree that was used on the IIT campus. The IIT campus is a modernist campus, the master plan by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German architect who came to Chicago in the 1930's. And this picturesque habit and open canopy contrasts very distinctly against the kind of right angle cubic massing of the buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe. So there's a really rich relationship in contrast between the buildings and the trees.
Doug Still: 6:08
Yeah, I love your appreciation for this tree. I have to say, honeylocusts are sort of ubiquitous, you know, it's probably the most common street tree in the eastern United States, at least in the Northeast. As a longtime, maybe slightly jaded urban forester, I'd probably walk right by the tree without thinking about it too much. But you wrote an article a few years ago about honeylocust trees called The Modernist's Tree, and it was in Dwell Magazine. And part of what makes THIS tree so special is what it standing next to. And you had just started describing that.
Ron Henderson: 6:49
Yeah. So in Chicago, it is about one third of the species composition of the urban forest. So it has been planted quite a bit over the last 50 years or so because it's so successful. But also because, as we mentioned, the canopy is fairly open, which means light penetrates to the ground. The leaflets are also very small, so that when they fall to the ground, they kind of just disperse in the wind. So those qualities have made it quite a valuable and desirable tree in cities. It's also very rugged.
Doug Still: 7:31
It's probably one of the toughest trees that we plant, [right] in terms of soil compaction, salt, its ability to withstand abuse and neglect. It's one of those trees we choose when we're like, okay, we need the toughest tree that we can in this particular spot. That's a place for the
Ron Henderson: 7:52
It is, and in its relationship to buildings, honeylocust. because the canopy is open and rather diaphanous, and the quality of light is so bright beneath it, it's also a tree that's become quite desirable by architects because it's a tree that doesn't hide buildings. It casts a very soft shadow against the wall of the building. But it doesn't hide the architecture, which has made it a very desirable tree by some of the best architects and some of the best landscape architects of the modernist period in America.
Doug Still: 8:31
Can you tell us about this building that this tree is standing next to, where your design studio is? And tell our listeners, who might not know, who Mies van der Rohe is.
Ron Henderson: 8:43
So the building is Crown Hall. It is the home of the School of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is recognized for a couple of innovations. First of all, the design studio, which is the place where architecture and landscape architecture students have their desks where they work on their design projects. It's one big room. So it's a universal space, which means everybody can see what everyone else is doing. So it's a little bit of a teaching and learning "in a public square" kind of space. So several hundred students are in the same large space together. [Right] The building is a steel structure with glass walls. The steel structure at Crown Hall, part of the innovation is that the girders are on the roof and you don't see them inside the building. So the interior of the building is a very taut, clear rectangle with four corners and smooth floor and a smooth ceiling. And from the outside, it's a very open steel and glass structure, so you can also sense the life and the vitality of the teaching and learning that's happening inside of it. Conversely, when you're inside of it, you're very aware of the trees that Alfred Caldwell, the landscape architect who worked with Mies and was also faculty at IIT, designed and planted around the building.
Doug Still: 10:26
I was reading a little bit about it. This building as a whole is considered one of Mies' masterpieces.
Ron Henderson: 10:31
It is, you know, some of his other well known buildings includes the Seagrams building on Park Avenue in New York, the Edith Farnsworth House which was also a steel and glass house, one of the first glass houses just outside of Chicago. But his master plan for IIT, as well as about thirteen buildings that he did on our campus is the highest concentration of his work. Most of us would consider Crown Hall the epitome of his work on our campus.
Doug Still: 11:10
Just backtracking a bit. So he is considered one of the greatest modernist architects of the 20th century, with Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright. And he was a German, he was previously the Director of the Bauhaus in Germany.
Ron Henderson: 11:30
That's all correct.
Doug Still: 11:31
I was brushing up on my art history [both laugh], and until he was the last director of the Bauhaus in 1933. Apparently, the Gestapo raided their school and dispersed it. It was considered very "un-German," the International Style of modernism. They didn't want to have that. That ended the Bauhaus, and he ended up emigrating and coming to the US.
Ron Henderson: 12:03
Yeah, that's correct. He and Gropius and several others were able to be invited to teach and contribute to universities in the US. So Gropius went to Harvard. Mies van der Rohe came to IIT. Along with him he brought Ludwig Hilberseimer, the planner, and others in a very complex, geopolitical time for sure.
Doug Still: 12:34
Right. And part of his responsibilities was, he was commissioned to redesign the campus as you say.
Ron Henderson: 12:40
That's right. His master plan for the campus was really one of the first importations of Bauhaus planning and compositional principles in urban planning in America. So the composition of buildings at IIT is not what one might expect at a university. We don't have quads, for instance. The buildings kind of slip past one another. And our landscapes are called fields and meadows. We don't have quadrangles or a yard like Harvard, which is a more domestic term. Our terms are more ecological in a way, you know, fields and meadows. Because the landscape flows through and among the buildings is not defined, like a courtyard would be. So the the campus is a much more porous spatial order. You know, the IIT campus again, to distinguish it maybe from other campuses, because of this modernist spatial planning, it's an open campus. Because we don't have quadrangles means we don't have gates, and we don't have thresholds through the buildings where you walk through a doorway into the courtyard. The perimeter of our campus is open. So it's open to the neighborhood, it's open to the community. So it's spatially integrated, not a place apart. Although the way the buildings are built distinguishes it from the adjacent neighborhoods. That also means that the landscape can flow through the campus.
So with Alfred Caldwell's work with Mies van der Rohe, building what's known as a campus in a park, the buildings float in this lightly wooded landscape that has a series of clearings or openings in the canopy, which are places where the fields are. And so there's a continuity in the landscape that washes across the campus. It's again a little bit distinct from having a series of enclosed spaces and quadrangles.
Doug Still: 15:13
Right, and a series of separate gardens.
Ron Henderson: 15:15
And a series of separate gardens. And so one of the things that helps the landscape read almost like a native savanna, which would be the the native ecosystem here in Chicago at IIT, is the use of honeylocust as as one of the trees because of its irregular habit and open canopy. It's a very naturalizing kind of tree, right, as opposed to a linden or a sugar maple or a tree that has a more tight habit and formal character. This ranginess and openness of the honeylocust allows it to kind of dance through the campus.
Doug Still: 16:05
Right. And so it's sort of like a field tree.
Ron Henderson: 16:09
It is a field tree, yes.
Doug Still: 16:11
In the Midwest, I think it's range - it's mainly, from Minnesota down into Texas, and the central part of the country. Some people probably consider it a weed, but it grows along the edges of forests. You had a quote, in your article you write, "In his 1939 book, Siftings, Prairie School landscape architect Jens Jensen wrote, 'There's a certain refinement about this tree and its golden yellow autumn color. It gives a soft light to the landscape. Jensen further described the honeylocust's common situation along the edges of forests. Down in central Illinois, the honeylocust is at home, and in some sections is known as the Farmer Wife's Tree. This name has been given to it because of the fact that it was the farmer's wife who went into the wooded areas along the prairie rivers for locust saplings. It was beside such a country fence row that Alfred Caldwell, who had worked with Jensen, planted some of his first honeylocusts at his Wisconsin farm in the early 1940s.'" First of all, why were the farmer's wives going in the woods for honey locust saplings?
Ron Henderson: 17:27
I don't know. [Both laugh]
Doug Still: 17:31
I didn't get that part of it. But that's what he said. But maybe we could talk about who Alfred Caldwell was and how he came to work with Mies van der Rohe?
Ron Henderson: 17:41
Alfred Caldwell was a landscape architect active in Chicago through most of the 1900s. Pretty much his life spanned the century. He grew up in Chicago, and began working with Jens Jensen. And was in fact, working on the site with Jensen on the Ford Estate, north of Detroit, which was one of the first times that the honeylocust tree was, as you said, kind of pulled out of the field and brought into the garden. Jensen who was a proponent of native plant species and an ecologist. Among other things, he was active in helping to save the Indiana Dunes. He was using plants that maybe the more academically trained landscape architects on the east coast were not looking at. So he was perfectly happy using this kind of field tree in a garden.
Doug Still: 18:47
So Jens Jensen and Alfred Caldwell were really the first champions of the honeylocust tree.
Ron Henderson: 18:53
Yes, and I think Jensen built an appreciation for it. But there was really no Jensen landscape where the honeylocust became iconic. It was Caldwell, and in a different way the landscape architect Dan Kiley, who elevated the honeylocust into becoming an iconic modernist tree. For Caldwell, who designed really some of the most remarkable landscapes in America all of which are in Chicago with the exception of park in Dubuque, Iowa, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool in Lincoln Park, Promontory Point are near the University of Chicago and Hyde Park, as well as a series of projects and ongoing work at IIT. When Mies was relieved of his responsibilities at IIT as director of the architecture program, Caldwell resigned in protest and left the university. He was invited to teach at University of Southern California at Los Angeles and also did some really remarkable projects there. Caldwell was one of the few people that both Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe liked. Frank Lloyd Wright invited Caldwell to move to Taliesin East in Wisconsin and work with him.
Mies first met Caldwell at what's now known as the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, a project that he had done when he was with the Chicago Park District. Mies, as the story goes, encountered Caldwell at the park, which has a remarkable wooden gate and a series of stone and wood pavilions that are often characterized as Wrightian. And Mies had a lot of admiration for this work, and ended up inviting Caldwell to also teach at IIT. So Caldwell was someone who both Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to work with and Mies van der Rohe wanted to work with. I don't think there are very many people that would be able to span this sense of, kind of Bauhaus rigor around the way things are built and the Wrightian spirit of a kind of Jeffersonian agricultural America with a kind of sense of populous democracy that Wright represented. And I think he learned a lot of this from Jensen in terms of how the landscape represented American values in a different way in the Midwest, than the more academic and maybe even still European looking east coast.
Doug Still: 21:53
The modernist style - International style - began in Europe after World War One, and had become international. But the honeylocust is a species native to the American Midwest, as we said, and sort of distinctly American. I find this blending of backgrounds really interesting. But do you think that Mies' choice of the honeylocust, and working with Caldwell, was purely aesthetic and practical? Or was there also an additional meaning there too about adopting culture beyond regional boundaries, if you know what I mean?
Ron Henderson: 22:31
I do. When you look at the multitude of drawings and studies that Mies van der Rohe did as he was designing the IIT campus master plan, you see someone who's drawing the buildings with straight edges, with triangles and T squares and very precise lines. And then when that's laid out, you see that he picks up a fat, thick pencil, and he does these incredibly gestural squiggles across this very precise drawing. And he's drawing the trees. [Right] Yeah, so the drawings give evidence that Mies was looking at that contrast between the cubic linearity of the buildings and the gestural vitality of trees. Caldwell was able to fulfill Mies' sense of what the landscape would be by recommending the honeylocust as the primary tree on campus, because as we come back to this picturesque habit, open habit and the quality of life that they provide.
Doug Still: 23:52
A short digression. The more I spoke to Ron, the more I realized that it was landscape architect Alfred Caldwell that helped catapult the honeylocust from wild field tree to modernist darling. I had the honor and pleasure to speak with someone who knew him. His name is Richard Polanski, who owns an orchard not far from the Caldwell farm. Here's a snippet from our talk as Richard helps bring Alfred Caldwell alive for us.
This Old Tree song - Dee Lee: 24:18
Doug Still: 24:23
So Richard, tell me a little bit about how you came to know Alfred Caldwell.
Richard Polanski: 24:28
Well, it was in 1982. My wife and I had decided to strike away from our career kinds of jobs after a few years out, several years out of college and we decided to buy an apple orchard. And we had rented an orchard and got our feet wet that way and we weren't from rural backgrounds or anything, either one of us. It was a big decision to make. It was that same month in 1982 that Caldwell called me, because that was through a reference to my mother in law, who lived across the street from the Caldwell farm in Bristol, Wisconsin. [Gotcha] He called me one night and asked me if I could come over to take down a little shed that he had built on his 40 acres. That was the first little shed, an 8 by 12 wooden shed that he built right after World War II when he bought that 40 acres. And I said, well, I can do that. I worked in the area. So a seventeen mile drive over there, met him. Then he told me he didn't have to be there when I tore this down. But he gave me all these rules about not driving on the lawn and whatnot, of course, which I broke all of those rules [Doug laughs]. Tore it down, got rid of the concrete underneath it. And a few days later, he called me and said, "When are you coming back?" He was so happy. He was so happy that I did it. And he wanted to know how much to pay. And I said I put the building back up, it's already in use. And he couldn't believe it. And he would call at 7:30 almost every night saying, "When can you come over?"
Doug Still: 26:15
He clearly liked you.
Richard Polanski: 26:17
Right, we hit it off pretty well, right off the bat. He had a four acre apple orchard up in the corner of the 40 acres, and that's something he planted the year after he bought that property, right after World War II. Which was the first time we ever had any money, he said. His family was very poor. Kind of wanted to do, I think, what Frank Lloyd Wright did, who he met ten or twelve years earlier than that. And they talked about being architects in the United States at that time. It was tough to do. And so, Wright went out on his own and started the farm, and Alfred kind of fell into that same idea of place to be your own person, and to be able to develop and be totally free from constraints, I think.
Doug Still: 27:18
How would you describe his personality? What was he like?
Richard Polanski: 27:22
Well, he could be the sweetest man, quite unbelievable in certain ways. Most people are probably familiar with Jehovah Witness, where the religious group comes and knocks on the door, and they want to pass out some of their information. And virtually every year, some summer day, they would show up way back into the property and knock on the door. And he would ask me to give them a glass of water, and we would sit and talk for a few minutes. And he would just be so sweet about that. But he could also be just a bear. The wrong person at the wrong time? He would you know, physically, just about physically remove you, you know, get out of here! (Doug laughs] Oh, it could be terrible. One of his colleagues at the campus, Louis Johnson. Louis could come and they would go off and talk about bees or have these conversations about the school. And then two hours later, they could be in a huge argument and Louis would have to leave. [That would be it] Yeah, yeah, and so it was the full range.
Doug Still: 28:45
He knew how to get things done.
Richard Polanski: 28:47
He did. And at the same time, you didn't realize how hard you were working. He was just so good at that! And I remember reading some of it from his memorial service, people who had written about their experiences. Students of his that so many people remarked that they had no idea they were capable of so much, that he got it out of them in one way or another.
Doug Still: 29:19
That's amazing. What's one of your favorite stories about him?
Richard Polanski: 29:24
Oh, gee, I've thought about all of these things so many times. It's hard to place one because there's so many. But I think in relation to trees, which were such a big part of his life, and I don't mean "tree" like a particular tree, but trees and forests. And after many years of working there we really didn't spend much time in the woods because we were always doing building projects. And we built a council ring out in the woods, and then he wanted me to make a path through the woods down around the marsh and then to meet up in a different location. The instructions were, this is just great, instructions were, "I want a path that a blind man walking in the dark will not stumble." [laughs]
Doug Still: 30:30
Okay! A good path.
Richard Polanski: 30:34
Yeah, right, right. And of course, but then without disturbing the roots that are growing above the ground. So it was quite a thing. So I started in on it, laid out a few different areas where I could do that and I showed him. And then one day I was out walking around in a part of the woods that I hadn't seen before, and it was not filled with the invasive species buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica is it? So that part of the forest was not invaded and I went, "Jeez, that's really interesting." So I was walking around in that part, and I found a card table chair, you know, just a metal folding chair, leaning up against a tree. I went, "Well, I'll take that up to the house." And so later when I was done, I took it up there and I said, "I found this in the woods." "Put that back!". [both laugh] That is really a great story. It's him. You know that that was his chair out in his words that he used.
Doug Still: 31:50
And what's a council ring?
Richard Polanski: 31:51
A council ring is, well, he got it from Jens Jensen, the landscape architects whom he worked for early on. Alfred said he kind of saved him from, made him a man. To think big thoughts, not just small thoughts. So Jensen built these. A council ring, they can be, the one we built is only about 15, 17 feet in diameter. And it's of fieldstone, or not fieldstone, I'm sorry. This one is limestone, flat rocks, stones that we were able to get from a quarry up in central Wisconsin, where we did go and he selected special pieces of that have those stones for certain spots. So it's a circle, and it's about 17 inches high, you know, a decent sitting height. And there could be a fire pit in the middle like this one. But it's for sitting and talking and meeting and being with people in a ring.
Doug Still: 33:01
Ron told me that he wrote poetry and short stories. What's your experience with those?
Richard Polanski: 33:08
Some things, I can think of the one that he had me have engraved on the mantle of the beautiful, fabulous fireplace in his studio, which is a wooden structure. He had me find someone to engrave, to cut into the stone. And the poem is, "Wisconsin wood smoke, bright days will to slush and golden rut." And that's a poem that he wrote thinking about when he worked for Jens Jensen, and he would drive into Wisconsin looking for plant material, trees, shrubs, flowers, different things. And he would drive his old car. He said that it had cardboard for the floor and just holes in it. And he would be driving through the countryside, and often in the winter, driving along and you see that in the winter every house has a chimney with smoke coming out of it. And then as the sun comes up on the snowy, icy roads, they turn to slush, and then they get rutted, and so there's the golden rut. So that was his comment on those days and working for Jensen.
Doug Still: 34:43
I later asked Richard about Mies van der Rohe and Richard Caldwell. Do you remember the story of how they met?
Richard Polanski: 34:51
That was when Mies and, I think, it was Hilberseimer, or no Hilberseimer came later. Mies was, it was in 1938, and Mies was in Chicago basically looking for a job, and Alfred was working on the Lily Pond on Fullerton, Lincoln Park. Mies was there and happened to be there and they started talking and Mies got very interested in this man, Alfred Caldwell. And then that's really when it all started. And it wasn't I don't know how long after that, but Mies started calling Alfred because Mies wanted Alfred to teach. And Alfred kept hanging the phone up on him because of Mies' German accent. He thought he was saying, "This is Me! This is Me!" [both laugh] He called several times, he finally realized this is Mies van der Rohe who was calling him. [right] So then they did meet and went through, you know, they had to figure out how to get Alfred into the school without having any credentials other than what he could do.
Doug Still: 36:09
Jens Jensen had Alfred Caldwell to assist him as did Mies van der Rohe, and Alfred Caldwell had you to assist him. Do you have a "Richard Polanski" in your life that you're passing some of this information or knowledge down to?
Richard Polanski: 36:32
Boy, that's quite a question. Well, my orchard is my life, aside from all the things that I've done with Alfred's things. And I really hope that I do have some time now as I'm 72 and I can't keep doing all this orchard work. But for me, there are some young people here at my orchard. Rachel, who started working with me over at Caldwell's, and now lives in the old farmhouse here and is married. And there are some young people in my life that I'm hoping that they will continue our apple orchard here, which is an important thing to me.
Doug Still: 37:14
I'm gonna let you go. But I really enjoyed talking with you today and learning about Alfred Caldwell and other people in his life and your work. Some great stories. And I really enjoyed it. So thank you.
Richard Polanski: 37:28
Well, thank you.
Doug Still: 37:32
And back to Ron.
Ron Henderson: 37:34
You know, I'm working on a new landscape architecture master plan for the campus with Chicago landscape architect Shandra Goldsmith Gray, and we're looking to diversify the species because there are a few too many honeylocusts in the overall proportion. And looking at things like Kentucky coffeetrees, and yellowwoods, as well as the nut trees, the hickories and walnuts.
Doug Still: 38:00
Trees with compound leaves. [Exactly] Open forms...
Ron Henderson: 38:03
Compound leaves, open form. Almost all of them have yellow fall foliage.
Doug Still: 38:09
Right, very nice. You and your family are from Indiana, which is smack in the middle of the honeylocust's natural range. Would you say that you have a homegrown appreciation for this tree? And what is it about the honeylocust that speaks to you?
Ron Henderson: 38:26
I do not have a homegrown appreciation for the honeylocust tree. I have a homegrown appreciation of chinkapin oaks and persimmons. [both laugh] You know, this is I think this is a learned appreciation almost an academic appreciation that grew out of being an IIT. But I began to understand how its qualities are so positive in this particular kind of setting.
You know, before I had a deep understanding of IIT, a place that I came to about a decade ago, my appreciation for the honeylocust was more focused on another project in southern Indiana, in Columbus, Indiana, which is another center of modernism in America. A small town with a remarkable collection of works by modern architects and landscape architects. There, the landscape architect Dan Kiley, working in collaboration with the architect Eero Saarinen and with Alexander Girard, the interior designer and graphic designer, worked on a project for the Miller family who were the owners of Cummins Engines. And one of the great modernist gardens in America is the Miller garden that grew out of that project. Kiley had a more European sense of tree planting, whereas Caldwell planted drifts of trees. Kiley planted grids and allees and lines. A very geometrically ordered spatial sequence of distinct rooms and spaces using any number of species. But iconically at the Miller garden, is an allee of honeylocusts that almost are like a landscape logia between the living room of the house, looking out over the great lawn that rolls down to the river.
Doug Still: 40:45
Yeah, very beautiful.
Ron Henderson: 40:46
It is, it is. And those are much different trees. Kiley selected trees that were a little more insistent. So the trunks were the same diameter, they're a little bit more straight trunk. Whereas Caldwell might look to find the most gnarly, asymmetrical tree, Kiley would try and find matched trees.
Doug Still: 41:12
So most likely, Caldwell selected that tree outside Crown Hall.
Ron Henderson: 41:16
Oh, for almost certainly. He selected all of the trees for his projects.
Doug Still: 41:22
And is that in a drift, or is that on its own?
Ron Henderson: 41:25
It's part of a little grove.
Doug Still: 41:29
You said it's covered in thorns, and I assume seed pods? [Yes] Which is interesting. But around this time, a new variety of honeylocusts was developed and patented, which you described in this in your article, at Siebenthaler Nursery in Ohio. How did that play into how the honeylocust was planted and approached in the following decades?
Ron Henderson: 41:55
So the native honeylocust has very sharp, pronounced thorns that grow out of the trunk. Native Americans used those thorns as needles and for sewing leather. So they're very sharp. And yes, they have very large seed pods. They're in the pea family. So they're like big pea pods with a very leathery casing. And, you know, maybe they average somewhere around 8 to 12 inches long. Those two characteristics - thorns which could hurt people, and the pods which become litter in an urban setting or...
Doug Still: 42:43
And there are a lot of them.
Ron Henderson: 42:44
...and there are a lot of them. Those are less desirable, although I love them. And on an aside, the honeylocust Right, he would have had that available to him [Yes] this new range, as you noted, was in the Midwest. Over the last several millennia, the range of the honeylocust has retreated because those seed pods were symbiotic, had a symbiotic relationship as food for megafauna. So giant sloths and mastodons were able to eat the leathery seed pods. They would be scarified as they were digested. And so that relationship between megafauna and the honeylocust is such that if you go to the Field Museum here in Chicago, and you see the diorama is with these megafauna painted on the walls behind them are honey locusts. And so the pods, they're hard for other smaller fauna to digest. So their range had been reduced. But it also meant that in the 20th century, that was not a very desirable trait.
So the Siebenthaler Nursery, had the new cultivars. But he chose not to use it. understanding is they discovered a tree not far from from their nursery, a honeylocust tree that didn't have seed pods, and was thornless, so they began to propagate it. And so that variety, the 'Moraine' honeylocust, grew out of their nursery and was one of the first. In fact I believe it was the first shade tree patented in America after the Plant Patent Act from the 1930s. So Caldwell largely uses the thorny pod tree. Kiley, on the other hand, selected Gledistia triacanthos inermis as it's known, which is the thornless seedless variety for the Miller garden in Columbus, Indiana.
Doug Still: 45:05
Now, I called Siebenthaler Nursery at your urging prior to this interview and spoke with Jeff Siebenthaler. And he said that the original 'moraine' tree no longer exists. The particular field where it was has been plowed under and is now housing development or something. [Of course] He described it, so there's Gleditsia triacanthos inermis, which is the variety and then 'moraine' as a cultivar of that. But the 'moraine' unfortunately, or fortunately I don't know or how we look at it, is not seen in the nursery trade much anymore. There are many different other cultivars that are used prominently.
Ron Henderson: 45:48
Yeah, there are 'Skyline' and many..
Doug Still: 45:52
Ron Henderson: 45:52
'Shademaster,' that's right.
Doug Still: 45:54
Other ones. So I have one last question for you. When you walk by this tree nearly every day, or at least very often, what passes through your mind when you see it?
Ron Henderson: 46:08
Doug Still: 46:09
[Laughs] Very interesting. I had no idea.
Ron Henderson: 46:15
So I teach plants and design in our landscape architecture and urbanism program. And for that class, the first day of the class, I do a walk around the campus. And I start with that tree. It's the first tree that I bring the students to. We walk out of Crown Hall, walk down the travertine steps, walk to the east, 30 feet or 40 feet, and we start talking about the world that that tree embodies. It's Bauhaus, it's modernism, it's giant sloths, it's the quality of the light. It's the shape of the trunk and the branching, it's the shadows that are cast on the glass walls of Crown Hall. It's the texture of the light that penetrates into their studios where they're working. So much gets embodied in that one tree. So my campus walk is about an hour and 45 minutes, but I spend 30 minutes or more, just at that one tree.
Doug Still: 47:29
We were talking about giving it a name and I was thinking, why not the Mies van der Rohe honeylocust? But with your talk about Alfred Caldwell and his influence, I don't know, we'll have to come up with something different.
Ron Henderson: 47:45
We do refer to the space to the south of Crown Hall as the 'Alfred Caldwell Grove' or as the 'Caldwell Grove.' So it's interesting that we don't have a particular name for this one tree. So we tend to just refer to that collection as the 'Caldwell Grove.'
Doug Still: 48:07
The 'Caldwell Grove.' Okay. Thanks for joining me today, I really enjoyed our conversation.
Ron Henderson: 48:13
Same here as always, Doug, let's plant some more trees. [Music]
Doug Still: 48:17
Will do, take care.
Well, I ended up calling it the Mies van der Rohe Honeylocust in the Alfred Caldwell Grove. Ron, I hope that's okay, maybe it'll catch on. And thanks again for elevating the honeylocust tree in my eyes, and the view of history.
And now it's time for the segment Tree Story Shorts, where listeners can share a story about a tree in their lives. Here's Tom Brennan of Coventry, Rhode Island. [Music]
Tom Brennan: 48:53
This is Tom Brennan with an "Ode to the Lone Tree." At the corner of two well traveled roads, stands a field of tall grass, and in the center of that grass stands a lone tree. I do not know what kind of tree nor what kind of grass. I have always assumed that it was a hayfield and thought of the man who would cut it as the farmer. Maybe I'm right, or maybe he is just a guy who moves the grass every now and then. But one thing is certain. He has always mowed around the lone tree. He has never cut it down, he has always respected the tree. Perhaps as many of us do, revered it for its beauty and its uniqueness, its abject perfection. Maybe it was that, or maybe he has just never bothered. Perhaps it was simply less trouble to mow around it.
Whatever the case, year in and year out, the tree has stood. For my whole career of thirty years in this, the largest town in the smallest of states, that tree has stood in that field and on that corner, a silent witness to the seasons and to the growth of the town around it. Thousands of people have stopped to photograph the lone tree. The lone tree has never objected, never demurred, never been asked for nor signed an autograph or a release form. It has changed, as we all change, yet it has never changed at all. Ever stable, ever beautiful, ever stately. Its proportions exactly correct. A perfect specimen of whatever species of tree it is. Under its branches countless birds have nested, around its base a thousand rabbits have been born, in its field as many woodchucks have raised their young. Deer have nibbled at its lower branches, young lovers have sat in its shade. The lone tree sees all, knows all, keeps all their secrets.
Now, the hayfield, if that's what it is, is to be developed. Condominiums they say. And they say such ideas have been proposed in the past, but the construction, or the destruction, has never happened. Am I selfish when I hope that it never does? When I hope that the farmer keeps on mowing and the lone tree keeps on...tree-ing? Well, then I am selfish, because I hope the lone tree remains for many, many more seasons. More birds, and more bunnies. More woodchucks and more deer. More lovers, and more secrets.
Doug Still: 51:49I'm going to end it there. I'm Doug still, and thank you tree lovers for joining me today on This Old Tree. If you liked the show, one way to show your support is to hit the subscribe button on your podcast app, and that way we're easy to find the next time you want to listen. You can get links and information about our guests in the show notes, and see photos and other related tree stuff if you follow This Old Tree on Instagram or Facebook and now Mastodon. Also, if you'd like to submit a one to three minute Tree Story Short about an important tree in your life, you can record it on the Voice Memo app on your phone and email it to me. I'd love to hear from you. Here's arborist and songwriter Dee Lee to take us out. Have a great day.
This Old Tree song - Dee Lee: 52:37
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me about what it's like to be, this old tree. Shadow and shade, kids down the block are selling lemonade. Send them down to cool breezes sweet cascade, tailor made by this old tree. In 1600 you were just a seed, reaching bothers sky, high. Waiting for a chance to take your place in the warm sunshine. Here I go, high above the place where the people grow, leave my troubles on the ground far below, so I can get to know, this old tree. Summer sparkle in your leaves. Autumn winds will bring relief. Winter calls for you to sleep. Spring returns again in green. But the town - ships on the water side spy your royal crown. Sentinel of green, two points off starboard bow, homeward bound to this old tree. In 1800 you felt the thunder or roll, lightning split the sky, high. Though the fire raged in the little town below, you managed to survive, this scar upon your side. This old tree, reach out and touch a living history! Beneath my hands an ancient mystery, how small I am by this old tree. How small I am by this old tree.