The Newport Arboretum: “Seeing – and Saving – Newport’s Great Trees”

Newport is not only known for its concentration of great and important architecture.  It is also a centery for landscape design and treasure trove of rare and exotic trees.  this is not surprising as the city has lways been a port city connected to distant lands by lines of commerce and trading.  Plants were brought from the corners of the globe and planted here in Newport as early as the Colonial Period.  This tradition continued and even accelerated during the Gilded Age when the great mansions were being built in Newport as summer cottages from the American elite.  Surrounding these enourmous houses, great landscaping plans were implemented and beautiful and unusual specimen trees were planted to help decorate thse lavish properties.  The importance of trees to these gracious estates was often reflected in the names that they took: Beechwood, The Elms, Oakwood and Linden Gate are but a few of the many Newport houses that were names for the trees that populated the grounds on which they stood.

Unfortunately, each and every tree has a natural and finite life span.  Today, we enjoy grounds of full grown specimen trees that were planted in the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth century that are much richer and fuller today than they were in the time of the designers.  However, for instances, in the case of the great beech trees now lining Bellevue Avenue, many are now at the end of their life spacs and this past years has seen the removal of many grand trees in response to disease, decay and old age.  Fortunately there is a very active and able group, the Newport Tree Society, that is working to counteract this trend by focusing attention on the value and beauty of the city’s stately sylvan specimens.  This past April, the Tree Society inaugurated two important initiative.   First they celebrated the first “Newport Arboretum” (Latim for “A place of trees”).  Since Newport is already essentially an unbounded Arboretum, the Tree Society is tagging the public and accessible specimens so that they can be recognized by visitors.  They area also creating online tools and maps so that people can use their phones’ GPS to help help and learn about the particular trees.  This is a large and ongoing project and many Newporters recently attended a gala screening of the wonderful new documentary “Olmstead and America’s Urban Parks” at the Jane Pickens Theatre to help fund the effort to roll this project out more widely.  If you missed the opprotunity, you can still contribute and learn more about the effort at the Newport Tree Society’s website (

The documentary was about Frederick Law Olmsted, who was the leading American landscape designer of the late Nineteenth Century. In addition to designing New York’s Grand Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace  and other great parks around the country, he and his sons executed many private commissions including some of the great Newport estate landscapes.  For those that are particularly interested in the topic, each Tuesday in June at 10am, at the Preservation Society offices at 424 Bellevue, there will be a different lecture on the nearly 30 works Olmsted and his two sons (who formed the firm “Olmsted Brothers”) designed and, on occasion, successfully executed here in Newport.

Another effort that the Tree Society is undertaking is the careful planting of new trees to help replace the ones that are aging and which will eventually need to be taken down. They assist homeowners in acquiring highly quality trees at wholesale prices. This act reminds me of an insightful definition I once heard but now always recall: “Civilization is a place where trees are planted by those who will never sit beneath their boughs, but are placed to provide shade and beauty for their grandchildren.” So may it be for Newport!


Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport. This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, May 12, 2011.

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