150-year-old Kelly School beech tree’s goodbye delayed, for now

 The historic beech tree on the grounds of John B. Kelly Elementary School in Germantown, shown here in 2012. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks, file)

The historic beech tree on the grounds of John B. Kelly Elementary School in Germantown, shown here in 2012. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks, file)

On Wednesday, Dennis Barnebey, who lives about a half-block from Pulaski Avenue and the John B. Kelly Elementary School, got an anxious text from one of the teachers.

It read, “Dennis, they’re cutting down the tree!”

The Hansberry Garden and Nature Center board member and “Kelly Green” project leader ran right over to the school.

New gardens, ancient tree

With the help of a service grant from Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative, Kelly School volunteers have been working on a massive greening project to improve the school’s barren grounds since the winter of 2012.

But while the school looks toward an exciting new era for its grounds, it’s saying goodbye to the campus’s oldest resident.

The giant copper beech tree in front of the school probably sprouted sometime during the Civil War, and has been a favorite landmark of the Germantown neighborhood for decades.

“My guess is it’s at least 150 years old,” Barnebey said, speaking with NewsWorks on Thursday. “It’s been such an iconic feature for so long, and people have loved it.”

But the tree is dying, its large branches are becoming a falling hazard, and it can’t stay forever.

A tree’s funeral

That’s why Barnebey and his Kelly Green partners were already in talks with Kelly principal Christopher Byrd about ways to involve the students in some sort of memorial for the tree that would acknowledge its history. Also on the table was the possibility of claiming the wood to use for pieces of school property.

It might make him the “ultimate tree-hugger,” Barnebey said of his rush to thwart the beech’s unexpected demo on Wednesday. “The tree’s dead and we’re still hugging it.”

But Barnebey said the School District’s contracted tree crew was happy to listen to his plea.

The compromise

Barnebey and the workers agreed that because of the danger of dead branches, part of the tree had to go. But the Kelly Green leader did convince the workers to leave the still-sturdy trunk until a later date, giving students and neighbors time for their arboreal farewells.

So the front of the school is a bit unsightly for now, with many of the stately old beech’s branches gone.

For Barnebey, the next step will be expediting plans to say goodbye to the tree and harvest the wood, which will take some volunteer elbow-grease — getting the word out online, through newsletters and reaching out to a few local woodworkers.

Barnebey also plans to meet with Byrd this week about putting up a sign that explains the appearance of the tree in the meantime, to forestall any complaints to the District.

One remaining question is the stump, and whether it’ll be completely removed, or left onsite. “It’s big enough to dance on if you wanted to,” Barnebey said of how it could become a feature of Kelly’s new grounds.

Given the state of the District’s budget, the schedule for projects like tree removal is unpredictable at best, Barnebey noted. But he hopes that by interfacing with District facilities and maintenance staffers, he can make sure the tree’s final goodbye won’t be a surprise.

“It’s been there a long time, it’s seen the history of this neighborhood change a lot, and we don’t want to see it go without acknowledging that, and involving the kids in some way.”

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