25 February 2013

Sir Christopher Wren - Rebuilder of London

Today marks the 290th anniversary of Sir Christopher Wren's death. Hailed as one of England's most distinguished architects and largely responsible for rebuilding my beloved London after the Great Fire of 1666, I thought it would be only proper to pay a small tribute to his genius here.

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Sir Christopher Wren with St. Paul's in the background.  (attrib)
Born 20 October 1632 in Wiltshire, Wren was well educated, attending Westminster School when his father moved the family to Windsor, then at Oxford. He excelled in maths and sciences, and was appointed Professor of Astronomy first at Gresham College in London then at Oxford in 1661. He was very highly regarded by Isaac Newton, among others. In 1662 he was one of the founding members of the Royal Society.

Also keen on physics and engineering, Wren became interested in architecture and in 1664 was invited to design the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Next came a commission to design a chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge and from then on architecture was his main profession. He never forgot his scientific roots, though. His Monument to the Great Fire of London - a free-standing fluted Doric column that rises 202 ft (62 m) - was designed to be used as a zenith telescope.

After the Great Fire decimated most of Medieval London, Wren created an ambitious rebuilding plan for the entire city. He designed and rebuilt 51 city churches including the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral that once loomed over the city. Miraculously surviving the Blitz during WW2 and though now obscured by high rises and waterfront buildings on the Thames, St. Paul's still stands guard over the city and when you're standing near it, it hits you just how massive and extraordinary a structure it is.

South face of St. Paul's Cathedral as seen from the top deck of the No. 15 bus riding west.
Wren was created Surveyor of the Royal Works in 1669 which gave him control over all government building in London, and he was knighted in 1673. In 1682 Wren was commissioned to design a hospital in Chelsea for retired soldiers. It still serves as a retirement home for retired soldiers and the internationally acclaimed Chelsea Flower Show is held on the hospital grounds. His other works include The Royal Observatory and the Royal Naval Hospital, both at Greenwich, as well as renovations and expansions to the palaces of Hampton Court and Kensington. He died, after a distinguished and no doubt exhausting career, on 25 February 1723. His gravestone in St Paul's Cathedral features the Latin inscription which translates: 'If you seek his memorial, look about you.'

So, to commemorate his great and lasting contribution to architecture and the most splendid city in the world, I've put together this collection of images of Wren's surviving buildings that I've seen. When I took some of these photos, I didn't realize they were Wren's work until I went inside or looked it up later (I'm not an architectural historian, is my excuse, but I'm learning!). In verifying place names I've come to the conclusion that one simply cannot wander London without bumping into Wren.

St Martins Ludgate
St. Martins Ludgate on Ludgate Hill near St. Paul's. Rebuilt 1677-84.
St Dunstans in the East
St Dunstan-in-the-East, located midway between The Tower of London and London Bridge. Rebuilt 1688-71. Severely damaged in the Blitz, only Wren's tower and a few walls survive. The ruins have been made into a lovely public garden.

Sheldonian Theatre
The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 1664-68.

Royal Observatory Greenwich
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 1675-76.

St. Bride's Church on Fleet Street, 1672. The tiered spire, added in 1701-3, is the inspiration for centuries of wedding cakes!

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The remains of St. Mary Aldermanbury. Gutted by a bomb during the blitz, the shell was dismantled and all the stones moved to Westminster College in Fulton, MO where the church was reconstructed and dedicated as a memorial to Winston Churchill.

Christ Church, Greyfriars, near St. Paul's. Rebuilt after the Great Fire, destroyed by enemy bombing December, 1940 . The former nave area is now a public garden and memorial.

Kensington Palace, formerly Nottingham House, was extensively enlarged by Wren when William and Mary acquired it in 1689.

The west face of St. Paul's. On the south face there is a phoenix carved in the stone with the Latin word 'Resurgum': I Shall Rise Again. And rise again it did.

Inside the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

St. Magnus the Martyr, at London Bridge, as seen from the top of The Monument, 1671-87.

Fa├žade of Hampton Court Palace designed by Wren for William and Mary.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Royal Naval College, originally constructed as Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, and home to my Alma mater, 1696 - 1712. I felt smarter just standing there.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London, 1671-77
Tower of St. Alban, Wood Street, 1685. The church was partially destroyed during the Blitz. Only the tower now remains and is a private dwelling in a traffic island.

21 February 2013

Gardening With History: Planning and Practice

I'm very excited about this symposium being held at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia and really hope one of the many job applications I've submitted in the area prove fruitful so I can attend!

The theme for the day is Gardening With History: Planning and Practice and seeks to answer, among other questions, "How do our historic landscape stewards sustain both garden and mission in the 21st century?" It's something garden historians who serve as consultants on conservation management plans, garden restorations, and as staff at historic gardens constantly seek to balance. I've seen first hand how knowledge of and familiarity with a garden's history can intelligently inform new design when required so I'm anxious to hear what the speakers at this event have to say.

Places are limited, so reserve yours soon! Watch this page of the Morris Arboretum website for further details!

18 February 2013


My esteemed colleague, Dr. Toby Musgrave, asked me to contribute a post to his excellent garden history blog, Garden History Matters, which I was thrilled to do. Inspired by a conversation with a friend, I wrote about the quincunx. (The what?) You can read all about it here.

Thanks to Toby for hosting me and hopefully soon I'll be able to feature a post from him here.


15 February 2013

Save the Tre....hey, where'd the tree go?

A few days ago I ran across this article about Washington DC's largest ginkgo tree. Estimated to be over 140 years old, with a majestic height of 102 feet and a circumference of 142 inches (my wingspan is just shy of 63 inches, so it would take two and a quarter of me to hug that thing), it had potentially another couple hundred years of life left in it. It's 79 foot canopy offered cooling shade in summer and just imagine the dazzling display in autumn, when the leaves turn gold and begin to carpet the ground in this historic square. It was even identified in the Park Service's Witness Tree Protection Program because of its size, longevity, and historical interest. What a glorious tree.

And now it's gone.

The stump of a gingko tree in Farragut Square in Washington on Feb. 11, 2013. The National Park Service says the tree, which was at least 140 years old, was mistakenly cut down by the contractor. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

It was "accidentally" cut down. The "accident" is in the fact that a dead Ash tree on the other side of the square was supposed to have been removed, not the healthy ginkgo. An arborist was supposed to have been on site to oversee the work but it's not known whether this was the case.

Now, I know we're all human and humans are fallible but this? I find it pretty difficult to disagree with the Park Services representative quoted in the article who said, "I find it pretty incomprehensible how it happened." Indeed. Or the author of the article who states, "You would hope an arborist would know the difference between a dead ash and a live ginkgo." Several questions came to mind: Where was the contractor employee who measured and identified the dead tree with the Park Services employee? Was the arborist who was supposed to be on site present and accounted for? Were the people wielding the chainsaws themselves trained and certified arborists or (I hate to say it but it's so often true) unskilled labor just taking orders? Was the dead tree clearly marked on a map of the square and did anyone think to consult the map? Was the dead tree marked and cordoned off, because presumably a dead tree might pose a safety risk and you presumably would want people to give it a wide berth? Just in case?

Reading the article took me back to my days as a maintenance manager in Los Angeles. Knowing the value that trees add to a landscape, I went out of my way to find good tree companies who knew their stuff. Whenever tree work needed to be done, I met with the owner of the contracting company on site, discussed the client's wishes and weighed them against the requirements of the tree. When the work (and the bill) was approved by the client and the order scheduled, I was on site when it started, as was the owner of the tree company. If he had to be elsewhere, he got the crew started, made sure the foreman knew what to do, and went to his next job. He always checked in with me and told me when the work was finished so I could go have a look myself. Only after the tree company had done a few jobs in a particular client's garden did I feel confident in allowing the owner to oversee the job without me hovering.

This kind of service doesn't come cheap and I did have some clients resist my recommendations. I remember one guy - very rich and very smug - who had three beautiful magnolias that were in dire need of trimming. When I gave him the quote he yelled at me. Yes, yelled. He claimed he could get Joe's Tree Guys to do the work for half the cost. In that moment it was hard to maintain my composure but I was forced to agree with him. Yes, you can get Joe's Tree Guys to do the work for half the cost but I can't guarantee their work. What I can guarantee is that you won't get the care and attention that I've given the job in ensuring a licensed and qualified arborist is on site and doing meticulous work with the health of the tree in mind (which, incidentally, directly affects your property value). If you don't care about your trees, go ahead and hire the other guys but if they are unlicensed and make a mistake, you have no recourse. Yes, you can pay half the cost, and you'll probably end up with half a tree.

A few days later he called me back to schedule the tree work. 

I feel sorry for the contractor in DC. I would hope they feel sick about what happened, but a mistake of this magnitude can doom a business. And now the Parks Dept. is planning to sue for damages. Rightly so, since there is no way to replace a 140+ year old tree. Even if they plant a new one, it will take another 100 years for it to reach compensatory stature and how many of us will be around to enjoy it then?

So, saving the trees should be about a lot more than stopping rain forests being cut down. Urban trees deserve our love, too, which is why it's so important to hire only licensed, qualified arborists for tree work. Urban trees remove pollutants from the air and a large tree is 70% better at it than small trees. They provide shade, which reduces the "heat island" effect and lowers ground temperature, they absorb rainwater and harmful soil pollutants through their roots. And one single mature tree, like our Farragut Ginkgo, can produce as much oxygen as 10 people will breathe in a year, not to mention the habitat provided for local fauna. Maintaining the health and vitality of these leafy air scrubbers takes know how and we should be willing to pay for the expertise.

It's a timely - though costly - reminder of how important urban trees are to the fabric of our built landscape. Which is why I'm taking my father to the garden center today, to decide between an Eastern Red Bud or a Dogwood for his treeless front yard.

14 February 2013

Hello, and Thanks for All the Fish!

From me to you on Valentine's Day - one of my favorite actors in a charming story with a happy ending at one of my favorite historic gardens!

Happy Valentine's Day!