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The Oldest Branch of Government

History: The House Elm was to be razed for a parking lot while a visitors center is built. But two congressmen stepped in to save it.


WASHINGTON — The stately English elm has held sway over the east lawn of the U.S. Capitol for close to two centuries.

So last month, when Reps. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Charles F. Bass (R-N.H.) heard that the tree--the oldest on the Capitol grounds and known as the House Elm--might be sacrificed to make way for temporary parking while crews worked on a new visitors center, they made the elm's welfare a personal mission.

Since work began last fall on the $265-million Capitol Visitors Center, tourists and congressional staffers have watched as bulldozers cleared the ground for construction to begin on the underground facility. The work has slowly undone a portion of the original work of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, though much of it will be restored.

The center--which will feature exhibits, theaters and shops--is the largest addition to the Capitol grounds in the history of the complex, officials say.

Before construction began, lawmakers were told that historic fixtures such as fountains, lanterns and trees would be removed and some later replaced, Bass said. But Bass and Frelinghuysen said many lawmakers were surprised to hear that the House Elm was in jeopardy.

Frelinghuysen brought the issue to the House floor last month, gaining the support of lawmakers including Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the Committee on House Administration. The House took steps to ensure greater oversight and protection for the tree.

"We were obviously outraged at the idea that they would cut the tree down for lazy congressmen to have a place to park," Bass said. "You can remove any amount of bricks and blocks and steel, but once you saw the tree down, that's it."

Last fall, a quick assessment by a tree company determined that the tree was in poor condition because of its age but did not recommend its removal, said Tom Fontana, a spokesman for the visitors center. A more thorough analysis last spring by the same company confirmed its condition and recommended it be taken down.

Another independent consultant offered further confirmation of the condition of the elm, which Fontana described as "in the winter of its life." But the consultant agreed with the architects that, because of its historical significance, the tree should be preserved. "The elm was never even considered to be on the chopping block," Fontana said.

"All the arborists concur that the tree is in decline and that it needs to be secured and protected because of its proximity to the construction site," he said. "And that's what we're doing."

After receiving a letter last week from the architect of the Capitol assuring them that the "tree will be protected during and after the construction" of the center, Bass and Frelinghuysen are optimistic.

The elm is now enclosed in fencing near the opening of the site and surrounded by a 75-foot mulch bowl and irrigation system. Over the last several months, its upper branches have been pruned and its lower branches will be secured with cabling as the project advances.

The lawmakers said poor communication between Congress and the architect about the project complicated matters. To help remedy that, Fontana said, information boards were posted for members on the House side of the Capitol last week to update them on the project. He said he was "pleasantly surprised" at the response.

Although plans for the visitors center have existed for years, the funding was approved as part of the homeland security legislation enacted after Sept. 11, in order to increase the management and security of visitors.

"Most of [Congress] probably agrees that it's long overdue," Fontana said. The visitors center is scheduled to be completed in 2005.

In the meantime, the construction has made for a bit of chaos near the Capitol.

"It's an [awful] mess, and it's going to be that way for the next couple of years," Frelinghuysen said.

Walking past the tree on her way back from lunch recently, Kate Spaziani, a legislative assistant to Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), said the work "definitely detracts from the tourist experience right now, but hopefully it will be worth it. It's kind of funny--with all the heightened security, they've got big trucks coming in here and no one seems to know where to go."

But at least for the time being, the House Elm is going nowhere.

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