The stump of a gingko tree in Farragut Square in Washington on Feb. 11, 2013. The National Park Service says the tree, which was at least 140 years old, was mistakenly cut down by the contractor, Greentree. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Eric Melby lost a good friend Feb. 2. The saddest thing is, the friend didn’t have to die.

Eric’s office overlooks Farragut Square, and for the 15 years he’s worked at the Scowcroft Group, a consulting company, he’s gazed down upon a majestic ginkgo tree. An oasis of shade in the summertime, adorned with brilliant yellow leaves in the fall, the ginkgo — at least 140 years old, possibly older — was a familiar sight to all who passed through the downtown park.

Then, a little more than a week ago, the tree was cut down.

It was a mistake. The National Park Service said the contractor — a Lothian company called Greentree — was supposed to cut down a dead ash tree on the other side of the park. There was nothing wrong with the ginkgo.

“It just makes you sick to look at the stump of the tree now,” Eric said.

How could such a thing happen? It’s like when you read about a surgeon amputating the wrong leg. And this was a famous tree.

It was memorialized in 2006 as part of the Park Service’s Witness Tree Protection Program, an effort to encourage the public to relate to the history of the city through its trees. Historian Jonathan Pliska wrote that the ginkgo was probably planted in 1873, although it may have been there earlier and been incorporated into the design of the square, which honors Adm. David Glasgow Farragut, the naval hero best known for saying: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

The tree was 102 feet tall, with a crown spread of 79 feet and trunk circumference of 142 inches. That made it the largest ginkgo in Washington. Apparently it was a male, so it didn’t have that stinky fruit.

Pliska wrote that the Farragut Square ginkgo “is significant because of its size, longevity and association with the transformation of an undeveloped tract of land into a small, urban park, Washington, D.C.’s first memorial to a naval hero.” He added: “Today the tree remains, as it has been for over a century, a character-defining feature of Farragut Square’s notable landscape design.”

Ginkgoes typically survive for more than 150 years. Specimens in China are as much as 3,000 years old. In other words, this tree had more good years left in it.

But not now.

“It’s pretty incomprehensible how it happened,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles of the Park Service.

She said that the Park Service thinks its procedures were followed and that this is “an error and mistake by the contractor.”

On Jan. 25, the contractor met with a Park Service employee in Farragut Square to discuss the removal of the ash tree, she said. “They both measured and identified the tree together,” Jenny said. Because the area has a lot of pedestrians on weekdays, it was decided to take the ash tree down on a Saturday, Jan. 26. There was a storm that day, and the removal was pushed to Feb. 2.

Jenny said the contract required the contractor to have an arborist on site whenever work was being done. You would hope an arborist would know the difference between a dead ash and a live ginkgo.

“We’re still trying to determine if that was followed,” she said. “The park cannot remember another case of a tree being mistakenly removed.”

Jenny said the Park Service is planning to seek damages from the contractor, although it’s too early to tell what the damages would be.

I contacted Greentree, but no one returned my calls or e-mails.

On its Web site, Greentree calls itself the “Most Trusted Tree Service In Our Nation’s Capital.”

I could make a cheap joke, but I won’t. I imagine the people at Greentree are just as sick about this as anyone. How awful to have accidentally felled a tree that had been around since U.S. Grant was president, a tree that was a poster-tree for our historic parks.

Jason Powell is an IT consultant who was working at Scowcroft the day the ginkgo was removed. He snapped photos. “It was interesting to watch how skillfully they took it down,” he said. “It’s just too bad it was the wrong tree.”

Melby now has an empty space outside his office window. “No one born today will ever see the majesty of a tree like that again, in this square anyway,” he said. “It’s such a shame.”


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