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Some cherry trees gave their lives for Jefferson Memorial

Scenes from 2010¿s Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual rite of spring in Washington.
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - March 28, 2010

Then came Rep. John J. Boylan, a former postal clerk from Manhattan, a veteran Tammany Hall politician and opponent of prohibition whose dream was to erect a memorial to Thomas Jefferson in Washington.

After years of Boylan's pleas, a Jefferson Memorial Commission was formed in 1936, headed by Boylan, and planning got underway.

But when the Tidal Basin, one of several proposed sites, was selected and a grandiose, mid-basin design by John Russell Pope was suggested, critics deduced that the cherry trees were doomed.

The project would claim all of the 700 Tidal Basin trees, opponents argued. Or half of them. Or at least several hundred. It was nothing short of "vandalism" -- the memorial "a mausoleum," a "pile of marble."

Thomas Luebke, today's secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, said that in early versions of the memorial, the design "basically reconfigured the entire Tidal Basin."

"I believe that it would have required more or less wholesale relocation," he said.

Roosevelt joined fellow Democrat Boylan on the side of the memorial, budgeting $500,000 for the start of the estimated $3 million project.

Business and restaurant groups sided with women's clubs, associations like "the housekeepers alliance," and PTAs opposed to "Boylan's Folly."

"When visitors are told that the first step toward the Jefferson Memorial will be to rip out every cherry tree around the Tidal Basin, they just laugh," The Washington Post said in a 1937 editorial. "None can at first believe that such incredible folly is about to be perpetrated."

After a year of bitter conflict in Congress and in public forums, Boylan's panel came up with a compromise: a much smaller memorial, moved to the south shore of the Tidal Basin, that would honor Jefferson but spare most of the trees.

It was essentially the design that exists today.

But some trees would still be lost, and the opposition was not mollified.

On Oct. 5, 1938, Boylan died. Pope, the designer, had died the year before. Roosevelt became the opponent's main target. He was depicted in editorial cartoons as a bespectacled George Washington, having just chopped down a cherry tree before a group of horrified female protesters.

Activists took their case to the airwaves, broadcasting objections in a nationwide radio address. On Nov. 17, 1938, with work on the memorial site already started, 50 women representing a host of social groups marched on the White House with a petition. The next day, activists descended on the Tidal Basin with their chains.

About 150 women occupied the work site, seizing shovels from workers digging up trees and in some cases replacing dirt that had been removed. Several posed for pictures "chained" to trees. No one, apparently, was arrested, and the protest soon dissipated.

At the White House, however, Roosevelt was not amused. He complained that the fracas was a flimflam drummed up by certain Washington newspapers. Only 88 of the trees would be lost, he said. Hundreds more would be added.

The next day, Patterson, the flamboyant editor of the Washington Herald and Washington Times (which she later combined) and a Roosevelt adversary, shot back with a blistering, signed editorial on the Herald's front page.

She argued that the campaign was not overblown. The protests were widespread and real. Besides, the Interior Department had just reported that 328 cherry trees would have to go. Not 88. "Flimflam?" she asked.

After that, the controversy died quickly, and it is not clear how many cherry trees were removed. "I don't think it was a huge number," said Kay Fanning, a Fine Arts Commission historian.

The U.S. Park Police and Secret Service planned extra security for the official memorial groundbreaking on Dec. 15, 1938. But when the day arrived, no protesters appeared.

The president attended, accompanied by his wife, and spoke from his car to a national radio audience.

"In the days to come," he said, "the millions of American citizens who each year visit the national capital will have a sense of gratitude that at last an adequate permanent national memorial to Thomas Jefferson has been placed at this beautiful spot."

About 50 yards away, a sign had been erected, reportedly at Roosevelt's behest. It read, in part: "The increased land area will provide space for planting a large number of Japanese cherry trees."

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