Before 9/11, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the World Wars, the Civil War — indeed, before the United States or the District of Columbia existed — a red oak tree began to grow on what would become the 1300 block of Floral Street NW.
For centuries, a flaw in the tree’s structure left it destined to develop a split it couldn’t survive. On Tuesday morning, part of the tree crashed to the ground in the quiet Shepherd Park neighborhood between 16th Street and Georgia Avenue.
Now, only a stump remains.
No one was injured, and property damage was limited. But for the first time since the 1600s, this small patch of land cherished by generations of neighbors sits treeless.
“What a tragedy,” said John Anna of Adirondack Tree Experts, the company contracted to complete the $12,000 removal job. “That’s one less majestic tree.”
Anna said the red oak — about 325 years old — was one of the oldest trees he’s seen in his 30 years in the region.
It’s tough to estimate the age of a tree just by looking at it, and impossible to pinpoint an exact date of birth. Anna estimated the red oak’s age by averaging the number of rings in different sections and comparing that number with algorithms that estimate tree ages based on their diameter.
By these measures, the tree was likely a contemporary of the Salem witch trials.
“Two hundred years after Columbus landed in San Salvador, this guy germinated,” Anna said. “I just think that is very impressive.”
The numbers tell the tale: On Monday, this was a massive, 75-foot-tall living organism, 65 inches in diameter with a circumference of 204 inches. One piece of the base Anna’s team hauled away weighed 17,000 pounds; another was 14,000 pounds.
By Tuesday afternoon, its life was erased. A 100-ton crane moved huge chunks of the tree into waiting trucks as a hard-hatted crew hacked away with an extra-long chain saw.
D.C. police kept the block clear of traffic, and Pepco workers tended to homes darkened when the falling red oak snapped power lines. Branches small enough to fit were fed into a waiting wood chipper as residents, past and present, gathered to say goodbye, their clothes flecked with sawdust that filled the air. Some made off with limbs as souvenirs.
“The tree I can’t stop crying about,” said Ruth Jordan, who lived on the block from 1962 until about 10 years ago, when she moved to Silver Spring. “I feel as if I lost a member of my family.”
Jordan used to live in a two-story home built beneath the tree around the time Lenin was plotting the Russian Revolution. Today, that home belongs to Dominic Ju, his wife and their two children.
Ju is the tree’s legal owner — but arboreal success has many fathers. When he moved to the block in 2013, Ju said, neighbors made clear where their loyalties lay. Generations of children had played beneath this mighty oak.
“They were like, ‘It’s great to meet you,’ ” he said. “‘Don’t do anything to the tree.’”
After Ju’s visiting father-in-law noticed a split in the tree Monday, the homeowner consulted an arborist, who told the family it was unsafe to remain in the house. Ju also spread the word to neighbors, who moved cars from the street. Another house had to be evacuated as well.
Hours later, everyone was safely tucked in bed when the red oak met its doom.
“It was like a big explosion,” said David Dennison, who lives across the street from Ju — and had his car demolished by a falling tree on the block in 1989.
When the red oak fell, Ju’s home had three holes punched in the roof. Given the potential for damage, however, the block got off easy.
“This thing falls in the wrong direction, it could take out two houses,” Ju said. There was another bright spot: Ju, an amateur woodworker, may turn what’s left of the tree into benches.
Joseph Hairston also watched the red oak’s corpse as it was hauled away. At 95, he’s less than a third as old as the tree — but old enough to serve as a Buffalo soldier, one of thousands of African Americans to fight in World War II in a segregated Army where soldiers’ races were listed on their identity cards. When he moved to Floral Street in 1963, he was also the first black man to live on the block.
“It’s the largest tree I’ve seen in the District,” he said. “I love trees.”
Loving trees, however, is a heartbreaking habit. A previous owner of Ju’s home had attempted to keep the red oak’s “co-dominant leads” — also known as trunks — together with cable. Such a task would demand cable an inch thick made of solid steel, Anna said. Cable a little over a quarter of an inch thick was used instead.
“As soon as the tree began to fail, started to crack, it popped them cables like they were fishing line,” Anna said. “No resistance whatever.”
Floral Street was living under a weapon of mass destruction.
“I saw it as a danger,” Hairston said.
Replacing the red oak will take time — or really, lifetimes. In 1692, all a sapling had to fear was weather, disease or passing horses. In 2017, there are pollutants, road salt that can inhibit growth and condominiums that can spring up. Nearby Walter Reed is soon to give birth to a whole new neighborhood.
Future tree-loving D.C. citizens — perhaps those fighting flying car lanes on 16th Street in the 24th century — are not out of luck, though. Unlike the humans who walk the Earth, a tree need never shuffle off this mortal coil.
“A tree will live forever if growing conditions remain opportune,” Anna said. “The end of its life span — that does not exist.”