Rotunda works: Magnolias reprieved, but not out of woods yet

When University architect David Neuman recommended last November that the massive, 100-year-old magnolias surrounding the Rotunda should come down to accommodate a $4.7 million project to replace the roof on the World Heritage site, local tree huggers mobilized. Nearly 4,000 people, mostly UVA students, signed an online petition calling for the preservation of the seven Magnolia grandiflora, an icon of the American South.

Neuman asserted that the trees had become a danger to the iconic structure and that their presence would prevent crews from erecting the scaffolding needed for the roof work. What's more, a UVA scholar pointed out that the giant trees marred architect Thomas Jefferson's concept of how the Rotunda should be seen.

But woe to those who would scorn a tree lover.

Almost immediately, President Teresa A. Sullivan stepped in to assure the public that no final decision had been made on felling the magnolias, and that one wouldn't be made until the beginning of 2012.

In the end, Michael Strine, executive vice president and chief operating officer, announced in February that the roof renovation, which will take about 12 to 14 months, would be delayed until after final exercises this year, and that the magnolias would not be removed to make way for the scaffolding.   

So does that mean the trees are saved? Not exactly.

As Strine also pointed out, the long-term health of the trees "were still in question," and while the decision to remove them was separated from the scaffolding work, he wanted a "qualified arborist from outside the University to assess the condition of the magnolias in order to inform our future planning."

According to University spokesperson Carol Wood, the National Park Service has agreed to look at the trees, but no date has been set for a health review by Park Service arborists.

So might the trees still face the chainsaw?

Back in November, Sullivan was bullish on removing them, explaining in a University-wide email that the trees were "at the end of their projected lifespan and were planted too close to the building" and that the roof work could "exacerbate the trees' already fragile state."

In addition, UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson (while calling himself a "tree hugger") contended that the magnolias should go, explaining that Jefferson liked his buildings to "stand up" amid "plenty of sky."

Local wags may recall what happened at Monticello when one tree got old. In 1997, arborists recommended removal of a 150-year-old tulip poplar at Monticello, and a decade was spent trying to save the tree before it was finally sawn in 2008.

The Rotunda plan, writes Strine, is to complete the roof project before final exercises in 2013, but if inclement weather or under-surface surprises cause delays, he says that the scaffolding might be removed and later reassembled, so as not to impact the graduation-time events. So might the need to remove the magnolias crop up again?

The question could be moot due to the age and condition of the trees.

"The problem is that several of them are really old and in poor shape," says Wilson. "In ten years they all will probably be gone."

–updated 4/27/2012

Read more on: Magnoliauva rotunda


I'm all for saving trees, but These aren't really"historic" and they do block the building, so why the fuss?

They are indeed too big and too close to the structure. Take 'em down and replant with proper distances and species. But that will never happen. Muhahahhaha!

Jefferson was a "tree hugger" having planted many trees at Monticello himself and stated that his wish was to live to see those trees mature. He would not have taken down a tree before its natural life cycle. He sent Lewis and Clark west with instructions to bring back different tree specimens to be planted in this area and gave many to friends and colleagues. UVA officials should view themselves as custodians of a great university and not try to make it into their own passing image.

The trees are important, but not as important as the building. Trees can be re-planted and grow. The building is irreplaceable.

Jefferson was a "tree hugger" having planted many trees at Monticello himself and stated that his wish was to live to see those trees mature

,,,, but I would imagine Mr Jefferson was smart enough to know that you don't plant giant magnolias right next to a building..... (what was planted there in his era?)

"Sawn" down?

Actually Rango, in Jefferson's day and even when the magnolias were planted it was common practice to plant shade trees near the main house to offer shade from the summer heat since there was no AC.

I would like to hear Peter Hatch's opinion on whether the trees should or could stay.

Planting Magnolias around the Rotunda is like wrapping a bikini model in a mink coat...

The coats nice but what is it hiding?

here is a view from 1895

You do know what trees the article as about don't you Bill? They aren't hiding anything that can be seen in that view from 1895.

The Rotunda wasn't built in 1895, so how does that help? I bet the magnolias were planted in the 1950's.

There are thousands of Magnolias in the area and only one Rotunda. Why people in this town think they need to listen to the loudest group defies logic. And why anyone associated with the project leaked the info about the trees is even more quixotic. Just cut the trees down and fix the Rotunda already.

Magnolias are not shade trees. They are onranmantal and wind breaks. Their bell shape consumumes immense amounts of ground area. It apparas that the area where they are located was intended to be a garden of sorts....

Chop em down, mill the wood into planks to sell as momentos and use the money to buy an acre of land with a thousand trees on it.

Then replant with some REAL shade trees that will provide a canopy.