Take a Bough: Slope’s Iconic Tree Long Predates Ezra

Beloved white oak has flourished on the Hill since the 17th century

By Joe Wilensky

What’s the Hill’s oldest landmark? One of the “Old Stone Row” buildings on the Arts Quad—Morrill, McGraw, and White halls—dating from the 1860s?

Actually a nearby neighbor beats them by at least two centuries.

With an estimated age of nearly 400, a huge white oak on the southern end of Libe Slope—along Campus Road, just below Cornell Health—is the longest-lived tree on Cornell’s campus.

The white oak in about 1895 in a pasture on what had been Ezra Cornell's farmland, with a barn visible in the background
The oak in about 1895, in a pasture on Ezra’s former farm. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Cows once grazed in the pasture around it as it graced founder Ezra Cornell’s farmland. Its distinctive branches and broad canopy, familiar to generations of Cornellians, haven’t changed much during the entirety of the University’s existence.

“It has been my favorite tree on campus since my undergraduate days,” says David Cutter ’84, BS ’85, the University’s longtime landscape architect. “I often think about all the people, events, and changes it has witnessed over the centuries. If only trees could talk!”

I often think about all the people, events, and changes it has witnessed over the centuries. If only trees could talk!

David Cutter ’84, BS ’85

Ezra—recently retired after making his fortune in the telegraph business—purchased the farmland in 1857. Dubbing the 300-acre tract Forest Park, he raised purebred cattle.

In 1865, he donated most of the property, including the land on which the oak sits, to create the University.

The tree, seen here in fog, is a favorite campus photo subject
An ever-popular photo subject. (Cornell University)

Nina Bassuk ’74 is a horticulture professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science and program leader of Cornell’s Urban Horticulture Institute. While part of her job involves planting trees on campus (which boasts more than 7,000, according to the University’s tree inventory), the white oak is a particular favorite.

“I’ve watched and admired it for 50 years,” says Bassuk, who returned to the Hill shortly after her graduate work at the University of London.

According to the inventory, the oak officially measures 60 inches in diameter (recorded 4.5 feet from the ground, standard for tree measurements), and 105 feet in crown spread (the average between its widest and narrowest points).

Cutter points out that as West Campus was developed in the 1920s and ’30s, the tree was not only preserved but showcased: “The way that Campus Road winds up Libe Slope was consciously designed to feature views of this majestic oak from both directions.”

The 1932 General Plan of Development for the University was the first to sketch out the trajectory of Campus Road, he notes, “and the oak is clearly depicted at the bend of the road.”

An early 1930s view of Campus Road with the white oak at left and the then-new Myron Taylor Hall at top right
In a view of Campus Road in the early 1930s, the oak is at upper left and the then-new Myron Taylor Hall at top right. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

As Bassuk explains, a white oak (quercus alba) like the one on the Slope, if not overly stressed by its environment, can likely live 500 years or more—though she recalls a cautionary tale from some three decades ago.

“One time, somebody wanted to ‘take care’ of it and tried to fertilize it, which was not a good thing to do for a tree of that age because it causes unusual vigorous growth, some really strong vertical shoots,” she says. “And actually, you can still see that; some branches go straight up, which is unusual.”

An Oak for All Seasons

Cutter acknowledges that the oak is showing inevitable signs of age. So grounds crew and arborists regularly monitor its health—mitigating, where possible, the threats posed by its location on a busy campus.

For example, plans are in the works to remove a sidewalk that runs under the canopy, in part to reduce exposure to the salt used to keep pathways safe in winter.

“Hopefully,” he says, “the tree will continue to welcome people to campus for years to come.”

Top: Video by Cornell University.

Published September 2, 2022


Comments

  1. Alex Hersonski, Class of 1998

    I have admired this tree for decades. (A&S’98). But what I especially love is that architects and planners have been able to save the tree and to not only build around it, but to use it as a means of showcasing Cornell’s natural beauty. Where I live there was a stately 200 year old oak that was cut down this past March in order to build a parking lot for a commercial establishment. The developers could have designed a plan around the tree, to showcase its magnificent size and beauty, but chose the ‘cheap’ way out. In fact, when people in the town started petitioning to save the tree, the developers quickly got to cutting it down in order to avert any potential legal filing. These are the types of people that would buy Picasso’s ‘by the pound’.

    • Sarah Lister, Class of 1979

      Washington DC recently passed “heritage tree” protections. Developers can move them, preserve them, or face criminal charges. The law addressed the problem you describe after an especially egregious incident.

  2. Ann Ashbery, Class of 1975

    I grew up admiring a beautiful photograph of this tree my dad, Ray Ashbery, Cornell ’25 had hung on the wall of his office.

  3. Julian Max Aroesty, Class of 1953

    In the fall of 1948 when I first visited and fell in love with this campus, the quad was surrounded by stately large elms. Students were sitting on the grass underneath the elms while an instructor gave the lecture. During our visit we were shown the waterfall and the gorge. I was entranced. Then and there I placed Cornell at the top of my list.

  4. Brian Myers, Class of 1980

    Further proof that when it comes to “most beautiful college campuses,” all others are playing for second place.

  5. Harvey Rothschild

    On a beautiful October Sunday afternoon in 1961 (Sunday Oct 4th, but who’s keeping track.) I took a photograph at the base of the oak tree of the young woman from Vassar I was dating. I proposed over Thanksgiving weekend and we were married Labor Day weekend of 1962. It is still my favorite picture of the woman I was married to for 51 years. Funny thing is that she never did like the picture.

  6. Tara Prince Goldman, Class of 1955

    The years have only made the Cornell Campus more beautiful. I certainly do miss it!!!!!

  7. Jeffrey Boak, Class of 1974

    I recognized this tree and its location almost immediately (“Isn’t that the tree that . . .”), as I passed by it nearly every day of my Sophomore to Senior years, on my way from One Forest Park Lane, home of the Epsilon chapter of Sigma Phi up to the Arts Quad.

    What a wonderful recollection and wonderful information about a tree that had been there before Cornell and even before Ezra Cornell, was there. I’m glad to have been privileged to share it with Ezra, as well as one other Ezra Cornell, a member of Sigma Phi, and so many other Cornellians.

    Jeff Boak 1974

  8. Jeri Frank, Class of 1976

    This is also my favorite tree, maybe of everywhere I’ve lived. I do have my favorite trees in other places, but this one has always been my true favorite. I lived on West Campus my freshman year and at the corner of Stewart and Williams the rest of the time, so I passed by it nearly every day. I also always looked at it from sunset watching from the Straight Terrace. Thank you for the story about this wonderful tree.

  9. John C. Robbins, Class of 1979

    Does the tree have a name?

    Perhaps Cornellians could be trusted to plant acorns from the tree throughout the USA and beyond…

  10. Catherine Holmes

    This tree is absolutely iconic. I recall passing it most mornings on my way to work at the Straight. So very beautiful. It also marks what we used to call the location of the South Gate entrance to Slope Day!

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