Progress uproots Liberty

Tree: Building a visitors center at the U.S. Capitol means moving the 40-foot offspring of the Annapolis Liberty Tree. Its chance of survival is slim.

April 27, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Tall, straight and sturdy, the child of America's last Liberty Tree has thrived at the symbolic heart of the government formed by the revolutionaries who plotted beneath the boughs of its fallen ancestor.

Planted as a scrawny seedling on the U.S. Capitol grounds more than two decades ago to mark the nation's 200th birthday, the tulip poplar now soars nearly 40 feet high, measures almost 20 inches across its trunk and will soon blossom into its signature blooms.

But the tree's robust growth could spell its doom.

The Liberty seedling, one of only four known offspring of the 400-year-old tree in Annapolis that succumbed to storm damage in October 1999, stands in the path of bulldozers that are to begin tearing up the Capitol grounds next year for an underground expansion of the building five stories deep.

Because it's so big, the tulip poplar's chances of surviving a costly attempt to replant it are slim.

Most galling to some who still mourn the parent Liberty Tree, which drew hundreds to the campus of St. John's College for a somber removal ceremony, is that the Capitol grounds are being redesigned for the sake of a $265 million project, three-fourths the size of the Capitol itself.

After two Capitol police officers were killed by a gunman who shot his way into the building in 1998, lawmakers rushed to approve a $100 million down payment for a visitors center that had been discussed on and off for decades.

Promoted as a facility that will both enhance security and improve conditions for tourists who now often spend hours in line outside, the 588,000-square-foot subterranean addition will feature theaters, exhibit halls, restaurants, and shops with enough space to accommodate 5,000 people at a time. Also included in the design is 160,000 square feet of "shell space" for which lawmakers have as yet no plan.

"They used the issue of security and the sadness at the shooting as a ruse for the expense of a vast sum of money on a visitors center we really do not need," complained Edward Papenfuse, Maryland's state archivist, who fears the historic value of the tree is being ignored in the process. "It's a waste of taxpayers' money."

Planners wrestling with the fate of 84 trees in the bulldozers' path only recently decided to include the Liberty seedling among the 17 they will try to transplant.

"It was low on the priority list because of the size and the type," said Drew Coulter, a landscape architect on the Capitol staff. "It's huge, and tulip poplars are difficult to move."

That the tree will be spared from the execution by chain saw that awaits many of its neighbors on the East Front of the Capitol is only a limited consolation for those who question why the Liberty seedling is being jeopardized at all.

"You'd be losing a living link with the Revolutionary War," said former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, the Maryland Republican who planted the Liberty seedling in 1978. "That's something to think about."

"My concern is not just the fact of losing a monument: It's a tree and someday it's going to go," Mathias added. "But it's the continuity of American history. It's also the participation of citizens in the serious affairs of government. This is where citizens gather to take action. It's so symbolic."

During the Revolutionary era, there were 13 Liberty Trees, one in each of the colonies. Typically, they were the largest trees available in the Colonial capitals where rebellion could be plotted out of earshot of the king's agents. Most were destroyed by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The others have been claimed by age, damage or disease.

So far, there's been no outcry in defense of the trees from Congress, including the Maryland delegation. The visitors center project has been blessed by the leaders of both parties, whose aides are meeting weekly with planners on the staff of the Architect of the Capitol to hash over the details.

Congressional leaders are eager to control the throngs of tourists that now wander through the 200-year-old building, adding significantly to the 30,000 people at work in the Capitol complex on any given day. During peak seasons, the total population sometimes reaches 60,000.

"It's a big dig," acknowledged Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat who sits on the 18-member leadership commission that approved plans for the project.

"We're trying to provide enough space to accommodate the needs of tourists for the next century. It's so expensive because we're building it underground to preserve the view of the Capitol."

Most lawmakers, though, are barely aware of the project.

"Nobody's paying any attention to it," said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, who expressed surprise at the dimensions of the facility. "I'm going to look into it. Maybe we should cancel the whole thing."

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