Iconic Penn State elms live on in new Health and Human Development Building

December 04, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It is more than a piece of wood. It is a time capsule. It is preserved evidence. It is an anecdote, a flashback and a reminder of another time.

There is much value found in a carefully handcrafted table located inside the atrium of the new Health and Human Development Building along College Avenue near Old Main lawn and Pugh Street.

For more than 100 years, University Park elm trees have served as iconic fixtures at the campus, etched into the memories of thousands of alumni.

Unfortunately, in recent years — despite extensive efforts by Penn State plant pathologists, entomologists and the Office of Physical Plant (OPP) tree crews — disease decimated dozens of the trees, forcing their removal.

The loss was difficult for the Penn State community, so much so that OPP worked with the Penn State Alumni Association to turn the elm wood into furniture for the community to purchase. A portion of the Elms Collection, which has generated more than $500,000, is used to plant new trees at University Park.

“The wood has intrinsic value and we wanted to use it in a meaningful way,” said Phillip Melnick, director of buildings and grounds for OPP. “The Elms Collection is important because it reutilizes the wood in a way that brings great value to campus and the people that purchase the Elms Collection products.”

A portion of the elms is also being purposefully woven into the fabric of the University, including one elm planted in 1898 on the east side of Old Main Lawn on the Pugh Street Mall. The tree was 103 feet high with a 75-foot spread.

Furniture maker Tom Svec of Lock Haven, who specializes in custom furniture design, spent months carefully shaping one of roughly a dozen slabs that came from the base of the tree into a 12-foot table for the new Health and Human Development Building.

“I think it is going to be a place that is going to be very productive intellectually and socially,” Svec said. “I was given a real marquis space to place this table.”

But this table wrapped around a steel beam in an atrium space represents more than a beautiful piece of décor for an area where students and faculty members will undoubtedly congregate.

“This particular tree grew within 100 yards of where it is now situated. I do not think it gets much better than that from the furniture designer perspective,” Svec said. “Plus the piece offers a point of reference in time. By counting the tree rings you can find your birth year. It offers a way of interaction that might stimulate students to explore a little bit more.”

The table shows the vast life of this tree.

The bottom of the table features a borehole with a beech wood plug that experts believe dates to the 1950s as part of a program to inoculate the trees.

A brass pin embedded in the table's top corresponds to 1955, the centennial of the founding of Penn State.

A closer look at the tree’s rings shows the elm grew four inches in the 1950s, a time that included an economic boom under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Conversely, the tree grew less than one inch during the 1960s, a time of turmoil, which included the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, racial tensions at home, and a war in Vietnam.

At both ends of the table there are remnants of chainsaw bypass cuts made by a Penn State arborist.

“These were left in evidence to remind people that generations of these staffers have worked for years to preserve the canopy that defines the central campus,” Svec said. “This is dangerous and difficult work made more so by the trajectory of this latest disease. Of special note are the efforts of Phillip Melnick, Jeff Dice, supervisor of grounds maintenance, and others, who saw fit to make sure that the lumber was preserved.”

Svec added, “My personal wish is to see to it that as many heritage trees as possible find their way indoors when their outdoor life is over. It may come to pass that huge trees of the sort that are abundant on the Penn State campus are a thing of memory.”

The table is located on the third floor not far from the office of Ann C. Crouter, Raymond E. and Eric Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development.

“The wood for the table came from a tree that used to grow very near the HHD building — that tree was, in a very real sense, a neighbor. I hope these gifts from the elms and the University will be treasured by the college for years to come,” Crouter said.

Nearby, the Biobehavioral Health Building features elm paneling in an entrance area and conference room as well as benches. Burrowes Building, one of Penn State’s landmark buildings on the Pattee Mall, is undergoing renovations, which will include elm accent wall panels and a conference room table.

“We are honored to have been able to incorporate wood from the Penn State elms into the design of our two new buildings,” Crouter said. “In each case, elm wood is featured in the entry ways to the buildings — a fitting way to honor the neighboring trees that have graced our part of campus for so long.”

  • The elms at University Park
    IMAGE: Kevin Sliman

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 18, 2021