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    She Painted the Town Pink

    By Sarah Booth Conroy
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, February 1, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

    Eliza Scidmore planted the seed for Washington's cherry trees. (Photo courtesy of D.C. Public Library)
    "It was only after my return from a first visit to Japan after seeing the old cherry trees, in their glory, that any idea moved me," Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore later recalled it. "It was in the first year of President Grover Cleveland's first administration."

    That was 1885. A Washington travel writer with a taste for adventure and an eye for aesthetics, Scidmore had just taken an Asian voyage memorable in part for the delicate beauty of the cherry trees she had spied in a Tokyo park. She had fallen in love with both the trees and the sensibility they seemed to evoke among the Japanese. "Except Fujiyama and the moon, no other object has been theme and inspiration of so many millions of Japanese poems as the cherry blossoms," Scidmore wrote.

    Wouldn't Washington, so long derided as a deathly and rancid swamp, benefit from such a blossoming? Five years after her return, images of Japan still fresh in her mind, Scidmore sensed an opportunity.

    Eliza Scidmore's early attempts to promote cherry blossoms drew little more than indifference. (File photo)
    Responding to complaints that malaria and yellow fever were rising from the Potomac lowlands, Army engineers pumped mud from the swamp, thus creating an artificial peninsula – what would become eventually the 724-acre East and West Potomac parks. Scidmore told the man in charge of the grounds, as she recalled it in a 1926 memoir published in the Washington Sunday Star, "that since they had to plant something in the great stretch of raw, reclaimed ground by the river bank to hide those old dump heaps . . . they might as well plant that most beautiful thing in the world – the Japanese cherry tree."

    Thus began an extraordinary struggle, stretching over several decades, that ultimately yielded one of Washington's most distinctive attractions, the cherry trees that bloom annually in Potomac Park, drawing tourists from around the globe to witness their brief glory. Since 1934, the city has staged a festival in their honor, although the fragility of the blossoms and their unpredictable timing usually conspire to thwart festival and blooms from coinciding.

    None of it would have happened but for the incredible determination of Eliza Scidmore, a woman unmemorialized in the city's official histories.

    When Scidmore first proposed importing cherry trees for the new peninsula, the man in charge just "listened amicably and sent me on," she wrote. Undeterred, she carried pictures of Japanese cherry trees to Col. Oswald Ernst, a buildings and grounds superintendant for the city, and made a plea for something of spring beauty down in the waste space at the foot of Seventeenth Street.

    "He listened patiently and seriously to my fairy tales," Scidmore wrote.

    "Nothing more.

    "Nothing happened."

    Ernst's successor, a Col. John M. Wilson, confronted with the same photographs and the same earnest pleas, offered her a practical-minded refusal. As she recalled it, Wilson declared, "When the cherries are ripe we would have to keep the park full of police day and night. The boys would climb the trees and get the cherries and break all the branches."

    "But these cherry trees do not have any cherries. Only blossoms," Scidmore ventured.

    "What? No cherries? Huff! What good is that sort of a cherry tree?"

    Undaunted, Scidmore began asking "annual dollar subscriptions from every traveler I could think of who had seen the Sakuras [cherries] in their glory in springtime in Japan, with special reference and appeal to those who had sipped the Emperor's champagne at the Palace Spring Garden parties."

    Scidmore hoped the subscriptions would buy 100 trees every year. "In 10 years, there would be a great showing in Potomac Park – a rosy tunnel of interlaced branches along the river's bank."

    Then came good luck – William Howard Taft's inauguration. Scidmore knew the Tafts had lived for several months on a Yokohama bluff and knew cherry trees well.

    As soon as the Tafts were in residence, the intrepid tree promoter sent Helen Taft a note "asking for her approval and aid in getting an avenue of Japanese cherry trees planted in Potomac Park."

    Presto! Three days later, on April 7, 1909, the first lady wrote back, thanking Scidmore, and adding: "I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees."

    Helen Taft, like all the previous occupants of the White House, had other reasons for wanting to do something about the place. According to biographer Carl Sferrazza Anthony, she was hoping to transform the capital city's blight. She described Washington as "a mosquito-infested swamp, rendezvous of tramps, and a hiding place for criminals."

    Once caught up in the idea, Taft added her own touches to the project. She aimed at shaping the Potomac banks in the manner of Luneta, a flower-filled park in Manila, which she had come to know when her husband was governor-general of the Philippines. She instigated building the Hains Point bandstand and changing the name of the Potomac bank road from "the Speedway" to Potomac Drive.

    Not long after, Jokichi Takamine, a chemist and a friend of Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki, came to Washington to tell Mrs. Taft formally of a gift of 1,000 trees from the city of Tokyo. But Takamine, who picked up a substantial part of the cost of the trees, thought 1,000 would not be enough. "In fact," he said, "I had better give 2,000 trees. She will need them to make any show."

    The first 2,000 trees, shipped in 1910, were infested with scale, insects, larvae "and what not," according to Scidmore. They were burned. Takamine took the news in stride, quipping, "I believe your first president set the example of destroying cherry trees."

    Undaunted, Takamine sent for 3,000 more. In 1912 they arrived in Seattle, where they were received by David Fairchild, another lover of cherry trees and a friend of Takamine. (Fairchild had planted 300 cherry trees around his Chevy Chase house and some at nearby schools as early as 1908. Many are still there.)

    The second shipment was closely inspected and found to be insect-free.

    On March 27, 1912, Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador's wife, Viscountess Chinda, planted the first trees between the drive and the Tidal Basin. Fairchild and Scidmore attended the ceremony.

    Scidmore said she "got a word in for having a row of Yoshino, the earliest blooming variety, planted along the Tidal Basin where they might be reflected in the water, as becomes certain Sakuras. A whole 1,200 of the 1,800 Yoshino were put there. A few cherry trees were planted in the White House grounds, one in Lafayette Square, and some given to Rock Creek Park. Some 1,500 trees were crowded in rows in a sort of a nursery reserve at the corner of 17th and B streets."

    Besides battling for the trees, Scidmore was an accomplished travel writer, author of seven books and a board member of the National Geographic Society. After she died in 1928, her ashes were buried in Japan at the request of the Japanese government.

    And around the Tidal Basin the trees flourished, both in the ground and in the hearts of Washingtonians. They were so cherished that when, in 1938, Congress voted to remove some of the trees to build the Jefferson Memorial, men and women representing D.C. clubs marched on the White House in protest. "Clubwomen who molest workmen transplanting Japanese cherry trees to make way for the Jefferson Memorial may be transplanted themselves," wrote the New York Times, reporting the demonstration with a touch of levity.

    If they chained themselves to the trees as they threatened, President Roosevelt said, "the cherry trees, the women and their chains would be gently but firmly transplanted in some other part of Potomac Park."

    The plans eventually went ahead, and some trees were safely transplanted. Today, National Park Service official Earle Kittleman counts 3,700 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, in East and West Potomac Parks and the Washington Monument grounds, though only 150 to 200 of them are thought to be the original ones.

    Plaques mark the place on the Tidal Basin where Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador's wife planted the first two trees, which survive today.

    Eliza Scidmore is not mentioned.

    "Life is short, like the three-day glory of the cherry blossom," says the Japanese proverb.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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