By Barbara Polichetti, Journal Staff Writer
Decades of carved initials scar the trunk of the aged European beech that is the centerpiece of Carpionato Properties’ Chapel View complex, in Cranston. It’s estimated the tree started growing in the mid-1800s.
The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers
CRANSTON Say, “Meet me at the tree,” to executives at Carpionato Properties and they’ll know exactly what you mean.
It’s not corporate code — it’s just a matter of convenience that evolved when a mighty European beech tree became the unintended focal point of the company’s ritzy Chapel View “lifestyle center” complex, on Sockanosset Cross Road.
The development, which continues to sprout boutique stores, trendy restaurants and luxury condominiums as it nears completion, is accented by a historic chapel and miles of fieldstone walls. But none of these features has been able to upstage the roughly 150-year-old beech that proudly spreads its glorious canopy over the parking lot of the Shaw’s market at the center of the site.
Representatives of the Johnston-based developer, one of the largest developers in the state, readily acknowledge that the venerable tree was not factored into their original plans for the hilltop property that housed the former state Training School for Boys. But they are also quick to sing its praises now and say they do not regret one dime of the roughly $25,000 it took to preserve the 80-foot-tall beech.
“You usually don’t see a tree like this in the middle of a development,” David Chamberland, a Carpionato senior vice president, said last week. “You usually see smaller, ornamental trees that are not likely to get in the way of seeing the signs and stores that are there.”
The city had flagged the beech, probably among the oldest of its variety in the state, for preservation and became insistent on that after a Carpionato subcontractor bulldozed most of the other trees on the property as it prepared the land for construction in 2002.
Chamberland said that many of those trees were diseased but that the company paid the fines levied by city and also complied with the order that the number of new trees planted on the site end up equaling the net diameter of those that were lost.
That meant scouring out-of-state nurseries for pines, cedars, oaks and maples that are well beyond the sapling stage, Chamberland said. And it also meant doing whatever it took to save the behemoth beech tree that had allies in the city’s Conservation Commission and Planning Department.
Taking no chances, the company selected arborist and tree surgeon David Schwartz, of Coventry, who has nearly 40 years of experience and a long list of credentials including that of an expert witness in court where methods of “forensic horticulture” are needed.“We hired David just for this tree,” Chamberland said. “And we did whatever he said whether it was fencing it off to protect the root structure, putting in an irrigation system for it, planting ground cover or having it receive regular fertilizer treatments.”
Surrounded by stone posts strung together with black chains to keep people from getting too close and straining the root structure by compacting the soil, the giant tree looks a bit like a captured prehistoric beast. Its knobby elephantine trunk is covered with wrinkly gray bark and the large above-ground roots that bulge around its base grab at the earth like dragon’s talons.
The ponderous beauty of the tree’s lower half is contrasted by the grace of its overhanging petticoat of spear-shaped leaves.
“This is one of those trees where the bark, the trunk and the leaves are all parts of its beauty,” Schwartz said recently, pointing to the knotty whorls that bear testament to lost branches.
The tree might look strong, he said, but it is actually fragile because it is old and was “very stressed” when he first came to treat it in 2003. “It’s very unusual for a mature tree like this to last more than two years in a development,” Schwartz continued, explaining that while there may be no visible damage to a tree, heavy equipment used in construction often destroys its support system.
Earth that has been leveled and mashed down by heavy equipment “suffocates” a tree, making it impossible for its roots to absorb water, Schwartz said. And excavation tears loose soil that contains fragile, but essential, “hair roots.”
“A tree this mature has limited recuperative abilities, unlike a juvenile tree that would adjust more easily,” he said. “I knew this tree was stressed the first time I saw it, and I took nothing for granted.”
Schwartz, who owns Schwartz Tree and Landscaping Service, said that initially the tree required frequent visits and a lot of attention because of the trauma construction work did to its root system. Even a year after Schwartz starting nursing the tree, it was not budding evenly, and his company had to come in with special compressed air tools that slice through the earth to make more wiggle room for roots without damaging them in the process.
“I was out here a lot at first, but don’t need to be here much anymore,” he said. “This is a wonderful example of tree stewardship, which means that we are taking these natural treasurers of the past, protecting them and passing them on to future generations.”
Chamberland said that he is awed when he thinks about how the state, and the country, grew up around this old tree. “It’s older than my great-grandparents would have been, and it’s seen more than I can imagine,” he said. “When you think about the history that evolved around this tree, it’s amazing.”
With an estimated birth date in the mid-1800s, the tree would have been little more than a sapling when Union troops marched South in the Civil War. Since records show that the state did not acquire the old Howard farm until around 1870, it is probable that the tree first spread its branches out over sloping fields.
In the ensuing years, a complex of state detention buildings sprang up around it, and motorists who whizzed past the property on ever-widening roads didn’t get a good look at the beach.
It’s center stage now, however, visible from the road, and that’s exactly where it belongs, Schwartz said.
“Look at it,” he said one sunny day last week as sunlight filtered through the beech tree’s thick matrix of leaves.
“It is the crown jewel of this property.”