In Living

One of two catalpa trees planted in the 1890s, perhaps by parks pioneer Christian Wahl, has fallen. (PHOTO: Lilith & Lincoln Fowler)

Heavy winds down a landmark Lake Park tree

Driving around Milwaukee on Sunday morning, there were a lot of tree branches, large and small, to be seen, victims of heavy winds the day before, when our first snowflakes appeared, too.

Around the corner from my house the heavy center limb of a tripartite street tree thankfully missed the small apartment building which it shades from the late afternoon sun.

The ash trees in front of my houses offered up a plethora of small dead branches that I'll save as kindling for winter fires in the hearth.

While most every city tree is important to someone, by far the worst victim I've heard about so far was along the path in Lake Park that runs along Lake Drive on the upper East Side.

One of two northern catalpa trees believed to have been planted in the 19th century, appears to have split a few feet up the trunk and collapsed to the side, as if purposefully felled, across the path upon which I often run.

The surviving catalpa of the same age stands nearer the tennis courts to the east.

Lilith Fowler, executive director of the Harbor District, and her husband, Lincoln, a co-founder and co-owner of Colectivo Coffee, alerted me to the loss.

"One of our favorite trees just went down in last night's wind," said Lincoln in an email.

"The Lake Park tree guide thinks it may have been planted around 1894 by Christian Wahl," added Lilith in a text.

"In 1894 Christian Wahl redesigned the (Frederick Law) Olmsted plan of the walkway in order to 'save some of our valuable trees'," notes that tree report published in a number of editions between 2003 and 2016 by Lake Park Friends.

"He then announced his intention to plant 'large trees' in each of the corners of the triangle. Today we find two Catalpas (Catalpa speciosa) with large heart-shaped leaves and long cigar-shaped pods as well as a large Basswood here perhaps the work of Wahl."

A Bavarian immigrant, Wahl is considered the father of the parks system here. After retiring as a businessman, Wahl dedicated himself to parks planning and was the first to serve as president of the first parks board, a post he held for a decade. It was he and his cohort that tapped Olmsted to design Lake Park.

The gnarly catalpas are eye-catching and especially unique among trees. Those heart-shaped leaves and dangling pods are also joined at times by what the Lake Park tree guide calls "large, showy flowers."

This particular tree, just south of where Linnwood Avenue dead-ends into Lake Drive, has been a longstanding East Side landmark to folks who pay attention to such things and, I bet, even if more subtly, to others who enjoy the park.

"Visitors to Lake Park will recognize its huge heart shaped leaves and twisty trunk and branches. While Lilith and I were reminiscing about how much we loved it, a passerby commiserated.

"There are a number of "champion" trees in the park, this may be one of them.


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