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."