Nicola "Nick" Aloisio, leans on the tree while holding… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
The gift that a notorious gangster made to Union Memorial Hospital 72 years ago is still giving. The weeping cherry, known to all in the hospital community as the Capone tree, is showing its age but remains resplendent and fertile with its glorious spring blossoms, abundant seedlings and rich wood.
The tree donated by Al Capone lost a hefty limb in the 2010 snow storms. The toppled branch left a gaping hole halfway up the trunk and raised concerns for the longstanding landmark on East 33rd Street. The hospital called in an arborist who found the tree "in general decline."
Still, it continues to bloom each season into brilliant pink flowers. Its canopy spans about 42 feet across Aand its tallest portions nearly reach the fourth floor, one story below where Capone and his entourage occupied an entire level of the hospital.
Several "Caponettes," as the hospital calls the tree's offshoots, are flourishing on the hospital grounds and several other seedlings were sold to raise funds and mark the hospital's 150th anniversary a few years ago. Even that fallen branch has come back to the hospital in the form of numerous beautifully carved pieces.
"It was not a huge piece of wood, but it was really beautiful," said Nick Aloisio, an Abingdon, Va. wood carver who turned the branch into elegant bowls, boxes and wine bottle stoppers.
The hospital plans a silent auction at its gala next year and anticipates spirited bidding on the items Aloisio carved.
"I will absolutely bid for a piece of this tree," said Dr. Richard Heitmiller, chief of surgery. "In addition to being beautiful, these are items from the Capone tree. That limb wasn't big enough to accommodate all the people who will want a piece of it."
The food-safe bowls, finished with layers of beeswax to a satiny feel, show the wood's intricate grain. The boxes, topped with knobs fashioned from sturdy African black wood, and decorative stoppers are among Aloisio's most popular wares, he said. And, when visitors to his studio heard the origin, many wanted to buy a piece of the Capone tree.
No one at the hospital is surprised at the fervor. The tree long ago reached celebrity stature — more for its intriguing history than its imposing presence.
When new residents arrive at hospital every year, Heitmiller takes them on a tour that usually starts with the Capone tree. It has thrived at the entrance to the hospital's original building since the gangster presented it out of gratitude for the care he received.
Heitmiller relishes the annual retelling and brings along photos he shot that show the tree through the seasons from its bare winter branches to its spring flowers, summer greenery and colorful fall leaves.
"Every resident loves that story and I love telling it," Heitmiller said.
For about six weeks in 1939, Al Capone was treated at the hospital for syphilis of the brain. Shortly after he was released from an eight-year sentence in Alcatraz, a California doctor referred him to Johns Hopkins, but the hospital, skittish about the patient's notoriety, refused to admit him.
Instead, Union Memorial, where many Hopkins physicians had privileges, devoted the entire fifth floor to his treatment. He gave the hospital two cherry trees and a donation as a parting gift. One tree was felled in the 1950's during a hospital expansion. The other thrived and has signaled spring every year for its north Baltimore neighborhood.
Neighbors immediately spotted the fallen snow-covered branch last year and inundated the hospital with calls of concern.
"There is a huge attraction to this tree and a lot of concerns for its health," said Debra Schindler, hospital spokeswoman. "It's really a hospital and community landmark. When the limb came down, there was just this outpouring of concern. People just hated to see part of the tree lying on the ground and I was just panicked, afraid someone might steal it."
Aloisio and a few other wood carvers also called and asked for the fallen branch, knowing full well the value of the rich cherry wood. Aloisio, who promised to sell all the pieces made from the branch back to the hospital at wholesale prices, won the commission.
"It was not a huge piece of wood, but it was really beautiful," Aloisio said.
It took more than a year, but the carver delivered on that promise Wednesday. From the 10-foot-long branch, he made 12 bowls and six lidded boxes of various sizes and dozens of wine bottle stoppers. He spread the pieces across a conference table near the lobby and passersby gushed.
"He even returned a decayed piece he couldn't use," said Schindler.
Even that has use, said Neil A. MacDonald, the hospital's vice-president of operations and a fellow woodcarver. He plans to turn that piece into a few pens.
"It was devastating to see that giant limb fall," MacDonald said. "But we have found some wonderful uses for it."
The hospital is diligently following recommendations from the arborist, who checks-up on the tree annually.
"We invest every year in this community landmark," said MacDonald. "We keep working to keep it healthy."
Aloisio said preventive measures will buy the tree time, but ornamental cherry trees do not have the longevity of oaks and elms. The limb left a hollow space when it fell, and that does not bode well for the landmark.
As he stared at the Capone tree, Aloisio said he could almost see through the gnarled trunk to all the burled wood.
"It is still magnificent looking," he said. "But, if I hear it has to come down, I will be here."