By Lee Manchester
As in the book of Genesis, a tree plays a major role in Wagner College’s creation story.
And our first yearbook, published in the spring of 1918, serves as our bible: It tells the story of how two Lutheran pastors founded the school in 1883 in Rochester, New York. Next to a photo captioned “The Old Apple Tree,” the editors wrote, “This particular tree is intimately connected with the founding of our Alma Mater. … It was in its shade that the venerable patriarchs … often met to discuss the project which was so dear to the hearts of both.”
That apple tree, known as the Founders Tree to the early Wagner community, continued to be a powerful symbol throughout our early years on Staten Island. According to the 1925 yearbook, plans were even made “to transplant a shoot of the tree on the Hill next year with the hope that it will grow up as a 'new Old Apple Tree.'” No record has survived, however, of the success or failure of those plans.
But that was not the end of the Founders Tree in our early history. In February 1930, a branch cut from that tree was brought to Staten Island for Main Hall’s dedication ceremonies. As a church official handed the branch to the College president and the trustee chairman, “he admonished them to … have Wagner grow in numbers and service in the future as she has in the past since the days of its humble beginning under this old apple tree.”
It was no wonder that trees were such powerful images in the College’s early life on Staten Island, considering that our first permanent home in Rochester had been a single three-story building on a tiny urban lot, just a block away from the city’s busy railroad yard. By comparison, Wagner’s new home was a veritable park, “located in a region of tranquil seclusion. … Tall and stately trees, stretches of greensward truly give Wagner something which may be referred to as a ‘Campus,’” the Wagner College Bulletin said in its spring 1918 issue.
In 1922, four years after the new campus opened, a Pennsylvania miners’ strike created a shortage of the coal used for heating throughout New York City.
“There is a shortage of 40 per cent. in anthracite of domestic sizes, and by no possibility can it be made up this Winter,” said the New York Times early that December.
“All the professors’ homes and the dormitory are hard hit for coal,” said the Wagner College Bulletin in November 1922. “There is but thirty days’ supply of coal in the borough of Richmond for the 86,000 inhabitants.”
Our solution to the coal shortage? Culling the deadwood from our campus forest.
“Our students have been very faithful during the past few weeks in cutting down dead trees and sawing them up for fire-wood,” the Bulletin said. “They are organized into ‘gangs,’ led by upperclassmen, to attend to this work at least two hours each week.”
The next episode in Wagner’s arboreal history began in September 1933, when the first women enrolled on Grymes Hill, ending a half century of male exclusivity. The enrollees included 17 first-year students and four others who transferred from other colleges.
Two years later, the father of one of those pioneering women pledged to give Wagner 17 maple trees honoring our first co-eds. According to a December 1935 story in the Wagner College Bulletin, the trees “will be planted in an open space behind the administration building [that is, Main Hall] sometime next Spring.”
Sure enough, that pledge was fulfilled the following spring, according to the April 1936 Bulletin: “From Mr. Fred J. Biele of Huntington, Long Island, [have come] twenty sugar maples.”
Several varieties of maple trees can be found today on the inner campus behind Main Hall — red maples, Norway maples … and, yes, sugar maples. As this article is being written, they are bright with autumn colors.
So, how does this documentary information mesh with the popular but unsubstantiated campus myth that the trees around the Sutter Oval were the ones planted to honor our first co-eds? There are, after all, 17 trees rising from the inside of the walkway around the Oval — is that just a coincidence?
Our best answer to that question is, “Yes, it is.”
A campus aerial photograph from 1938 shows a neat array of saplings that had recently been planted on both sides of the driveway in front of Main Hall — the area we know today as the Oval. Another aerial photo taken in 1950 shows maturing trees rising around the Oval in the same array as the 1938 saplings — and the height of those trees is consistent with the known growth habits of the London plane tree, which reaches about 60 feet in its first 20 years.
The fact that there are 17 London plane trees on the inside of the Oval, and 18 trees on the outside, is just a fluke: The blank space between two trees in the pattern on the inside of the Oval shows where one of the 18 original trees was removed at some point, possibly because of disease.
The trees memorializing Wagner’s first co-eds, however, were maple trees, not London plane trees, and they were planted behind Main Hall, not on the Oval in front of it. (Fall 2016 update: Read the real story behind the Oval trees.)
In 1960, a new organization was created to share the botanical resources of Wagner’s park-like campus with its neighbors on Staten Island.
“An arboretum — a botanical garden specializing in trees and shrubs — will be established on the Wagner College campus,” wrote Robert Olwig in the September 1, 1960, issue of the Staten Island Advance. “A joint announcement was made today by the college and a new citizens group called Staten Island Arboretum Inc.”
While “the arboretum will include plantings throughout the 75-acre hilltop campus,” Olwig wrote, “the focal point … will be the heavily wooded ravine off Howard Ave. between Hillside Ave. and the library building now being constructed.”
The purpose of the Staten Island Arboretum, according to the October 1960 Wagner College Bulletin, was to “demonstrate the wide variety of trees and shrubbery suitable for local soil and weather conditions and serve an important service to home owners” who were landscaping their new houses.
By 1964, however, the Arboretum was “being challenged by ‘progress,’” according to the Advance. “The college is completing a new dormitory, other structures are being planned and a large area between Wagner College Rd. [the main entranceway] and Hillside Ave. is being filled in with dirt from the Staten Island Expressway.” That fill created what we know today as the Tiers parking lot.
We don’t know what arboretum activities were undertaken in other parts of campus, or for how long. We do know, however, that by 1977, the Staten Island Botanic Garden (as it had become known) had moved to the campus of a former retirement home for merchant seamen, Sailors Snug Harbor, that had been landmarked and purchased by the City of New York for refitting as a cultural center on Staten Island’s North Shore.
The next stage in Wagner College’s consciousness of its own sylvan resources came in 1974 with the publication of “Woody Plants of Wagner College,” a 16-page illustrated guide to the common tree species found at that time on our Grymes Hill campus. It was written by biology professor Dean Christianson and student John Cain ’73, with leaf drawings by Paul Grecay ’74 and a species locator map by Alice Cook Taylor ’74.
“We were really an active group at the time,” Christianson told us. “Earth Day had been celebrated for the first time in 1970, and we were pretty fired up.”
The booklet, however, was not created as a tool for the Staten Island Arboretum, Christianson said. In fact, Christianson doesn’t recall ever hearing of the arboretum project during his tenure at Wagner, which ran from 1969 to 1975.
“Woody Plants” wasn’t meant to be a definitive, exhaustive inventory of all the tree species found on Grymes Hill, just “a guide to some of the more common woody plants found on the Wagner Campus. … Many other species are also found on Campus, but most are not common in this region other than for ornamentals.”
Finally, to bring us into the present day, we enlisted the help of two current members of the Wagner College community. One of them was biology professor Horst Onken, an animal physiologist who grew up surrounded by the greenhouses and orchards of his family’s nursery in western Germany, a business started by Onken’s father and uncles.
“Squirrels love the beechnut,” Onken said. “They’ve already got the nuts from this one.”
“I enjoyed that a lot,” Onken said. “It was right on the outskirts of town — on one side of us were fields; on the other, forests.”
Some years back, after Onken happened upon an old copy of Christianson’s “Woody Plants” in a lab drawer, he decided to create an updated, informal tour of Wagner’s modern trees for new biology students — his way of introducing them to the varieties of woody life in their new community. He gave us an abbreviated version of that tour early this fall.
As we walked through Trautmann Square, next to the library, Onken knelt and picked up the spiny, open seed cover of an American beech tree.
“Squirrels love the beechnut,” Onken said. “They’ve already got the nuts from this one.”
Onken guessed that the beech tree in Trautmann Square was probably about the same age as the twin European beech trees planted on either end of Main Hall after the building opened in 1930. One of those trees succumbed to disease half a decade ago; it was replaced with a young tree of the same variety — and since the beech only grows to a certain height, and no more, eventually the two Main Hall beeches will again be of matching height, Onken explained.
Our last exploration of Wagner’s campus trees was in the company of Long Island arborist Maryann T. Matlak, the mother of Corrine Matlak ’15, a student worker in our Communications Office. Maryann Matlak helped us look with a landscaper’s eye at the trees currently growing on the Inner Oval, the small yard behind the Cunard family villa that served as the core of Wagner College’s original 1918 Staten Island campus.
“Most of what you see here is for shade,” Matlak explained, pointing to the two magnificent red maples, the ash, and the sassafras in the yard, and the towering old white oaks that ring the area. “You also have lots of ornamental trees along the margins — the cherries lining the walks, the crabapple off one corner of Cunard, a little dogwood on the south end, a magnolia. With all of those blossoms, this must be lovely in the spring.”
And so it is, as all Wagnerians know — but, of course, it’s lovely all year around, and inspiring, too. The trees of Wagner College, these great, huge creatures rising into the sky, serve as a powerful nonverbal counterpoint to the river of words that flows through our classrooms and textbooks, a silent, strong testament to the diversity and durability of Being.
And the Wagner woods endure.