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Iconic Cornell trees preserved as benches on National Mall

Two sugar maple trees uprooted from campus to make way for construction have found a second life -- as the raw material for a set of benches in the new People's Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. And mall visitors can hear all about the history of the benches as they relax by dialing up a recording on their cell phones.

The VanRose benches, named in honor of Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, founding co-directors of the College of Home Economics (now the College of Human Ecology), will be dedicated April 22 as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture celebration of Earth Day.

The benches are located in a new garden at the USDA's Whitten Building.

The benches came from two iconic trees, which for roughly 80 years stood over a children's garden outside the east wing of Martha Van Rensselaer (MVR) Hall. In fall 2008, they were cleared as part of construction of the new Human Ecology Building adjacent to MVR Hall and headed for a landfill. But Jack Elliott, associate professor of design and environmental analysis, salvaged the trees, roots and all, and worked with a group of students to craft them into benches.

It took nearly a semester for the group to scrub the dirt, clay and rocks from the roots, laying bare the wood to be sculpted. From there, they used hand and power tools to cut, shape and smooth the wood. The resulting benches, about 500 pounds each, preserve the lower portions of the trunk and root ball -- parts that would normally be scrapped.

"The parts of the tree that are often rejected for conventional furniture making are among the most beautiful," said Elliott, who designed the sustainable pieces to raise awareness of forestry waste. "By keeping these elements, the design helps to remind people of the origin of the benches. The whole story of the tree is told by these benches -- the roots, rings, spalting and cracking."

The VanRose benches first appeared on the National Mall as part of Silo House, Cornell's entry in the 2009 Solar Decathlon contest held by the U.S. Department of Energy. They impressed USDA officials visiting the exhibit, who soon after worked with Elliott to install them.

"It's important that something lasting and valuable came out of this wood," said Elliott. "It's very fitting that they'll live on in the People's Garden and to remind visitors of the value of the natural world."

Another pair of benches Elliott and his students created from the sugar maple trees is planned to be located within the new Human Ecology Building scheduled to open in 2012.

Cell Phone Tour Number: 202-595-1185

Recorded by: Jack Elliott

"The relationship between the garden and furniture is an old one. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman statesman Pliny the Younger described his garden in a letter in which, 'In different quarters are disposed several marble seats, which serve as so many reliefs after one is wearied with walking.' The idea of rest is also caught up with the idea of reflection, and these are the central motivations for this seat, the VanRose benches.

"These benches were once part of a single sugar maple tree that overlooked a children's garden of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. It was planted around the time of the college's founding in 1925. In 2008, the tree had to be removed for a major construction project. Rather than being cut close to the ground and felled for firewood, I asked that the tree be cut five feet above the ground and that the lower trunk and root ball be dug up for delivery to my studio. Here I could work on it with my undergraduate research assistants to create a new form of sustainable furniture prototype. I did not have a preconception of the result. I simply wanted to work with the piece to let it reveal a meaningful artifact, while raising public awareness about some environmental issue, in this case, forestry waste.

"In addition to the environmental message, the VanRose benches celebrate the founders of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. In 1925, through the stewardship of Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, a school of Home Economics was converted to the New York State College of Home Economics, the first state-chartered college of home economics in the country. As co-deans for the first eight years of the college, they were often seen together and became known collectively as 'VanRose.' The pairing of the benches reflects this close relationship of the two pioneering women.

"The VanRose benches also speak to the tradition of using a rustic aesthetic to more clearly express the close human/nature relationship typically found in the garden. Here a square plan and orthogonal planes intersect a part of the tree that is normally discarded to reveal the inner beauties of its full natural form, while providing a place to sit and enjoy the outer beauties of the new People's Garden on the Mall.

"Press the star key to learn more about my research and designs. Thanks for listening."

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

Media Contact

John Carberry