A gnarly old conifer finds new life on a recognized California estate.
In 1908, architects Charles and Henry Greene built one of their most famous residences, the Robert R. Blacker House. In addition to designing the home and interior furnishings, they also designed the landscaping which included a Bermuda cedar tree in the front yard.
A century later, the 55′-tall tree threatened to fall onto the house. Once a sentinel standing watch over the entrance of a grand estate, the gnarly old conifer now leaned like an old man on weak legs. The tree had to come down.
Our hope was that the wood salvaged from this tree could be used somewhere on the grounds – the current owners of the Blacker House had the same thought. The plan was to drop the tree, saw it into usable lumber then build something with it that could be used on the property.
While the Greenes have long been celebrated for their “total design” approach and their unique ability to design homes, the interiors and the furnishings so cohesively, this would be the first example of furniture built for a particular Greene Brother’s property with material grown on that property. We had the opportunity to take the level of cohesion a step further.
As its name implies, Bermuda cedar originates from Bermuda. These trees have a long history as prized timber, which was first used for the construction of homes by English colonists. Later it was discovered to be an excellent material for shipbuilding. John Rolfe – who in 1614 married Pocahontas – lost his way on his expedition to Virginia and became stranded on Bermuda. He constructed a new ship from the island cedar before he continued his journey.
During World War II, the United States built air bases in Bermuda and unintentionally introduced two species of insects that killed 99 percent of the Bermuda cedar trees. Today, the species is seldom mentioned in the lumber or landscaping trades.
When the Blacker House tree came down, we salvaged materials ranging from 1″ to 4″ in thickness. It air-dried for about five years. When we finally took a look at the pile, we were pleased to find that the boards remained fairly flat and straight – some boards checked and cracked, but a high percentage of usable lumber remained.
The wood ranges from bright pink through magenta in color when freshly cut. It oxidizes, however, and turns a warm brown, and it is strongly aromatic. The grain is usually straight, but can also be wild and interlocked with high chatoyance. Once dry, Bermuda cedar is relatively lightweight.
Bermuda cedar works well with machine and hand tools; a fine surface can be achieved with a handplane. The wood is resinous, which lends to its moisture resistance and partially explains why it works well as a material for ships. (I collected some resin that had secreted onto the branches and successfully made an alcohol-based spirit varnish.)
The Blacker House owner’s landscape architect had designed a series of benches for the garden – the weather-resistant tendencies of the Bermuda cedar perfectly fit this idea. The benches were a modified version of a garden bench originally designed by Henry Greene for yet another property. Utilizing joinery often used in Greene & Greene furniture (housed and pegged mortise and tenons) the benches should last for a very long time.
The task of taking a project from a live tree to finished furniture was an enjoyable experience; learning about this unique wood species enriched the experience even more. While the tree no longer provides shade or a space for birds to nest, it now offers a place to sit and enjoy the beauty of the Blacker House.
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