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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Establishment of Arnold Arboretum

The Arnold Arboretum, among the "jewels" of Boston's Emerald Necklace, was the first arboretum in the United States. The catalyst for establishing an arboretum, a place for the scientific study and exhibition of trees, was the death of James Arnold, a successful Massachusetts merchant. Arnold had bequeathed $100,000 upon his death in 1868 for study and research in either agriculture (raising crops and livestock) or horticulture (raising flowers, fruits, vegetables, or ornamental plants). The trustees of his estate decided to use the money to establish a place for the study of woody plants: trees, shrubs, and vines. The land eventually used was the former farm of Benjamin Bussey. Bussey had willed his land to Harvard University. In March 1872, the trustees presented Arnold's gift to Harvard University. A few months later, the Bussey land and the Arnold trust were merged to create the Arnold Arboretum. Shortly thereafter they appointed Charles Sprague Sargent as its director.

Charles Sargent was born in 1841 into an elite Boston family. His father was a successful merchant and banker as well as an amateur horticulturist. Among Charles Sargent's well-known relatives was a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, the painter John Singer Sargent, and his father's cousin Henry Winthrop Sargent. Henry Sargent, friend and patron of landscape gardener Alexander Jackson Downing, would be an early inspiration to Charles Sargent and pique his interest in horticulture. After graduating from Harvard in 1862, Sargent served in the Civil War and then spent three years traveling through Europe. Upon his return in 1868, he took over management of his father's large estate and soon began a lifelong interest in trees, shrubs, and ornamental plants. In May 1872, he became Professor of Horticulture at the Bussey Institute, an extension site of Harvard. Sargent's appointment as Arnold Arboretum's first director later that year placed him in contact with some of the most influential scientists of his time.

It was decided that Arnold Arboretum should display every kind of tree that successfully could be grown in the Boston area (the North Temperate Zone). In the half-century before the establishment of Arnold Arboretum, the science of botany, and particularly taxonomy (the theory, principles, and process of classifying living things), grew tremendously.¹ By the early 19th century, a new "natural" system of classification based on the development of form and structure slowly replaced the Linnaean system, which involved placing trees into categories according to their number of male and female plant parts. Sargent faced the challenge of planting trees in a way that reflected these advances, while still arranging them to look as natural as possible.

Sargent later said that no one, including himself, realized the difficulties involved in establishing the arboretum. He began "without equipment or the support and encouragement of the general public which then knew nothing about an Arboretum and what it was expected to accomplish."² After determining that he did not have the funds necessary to establish and maintain a proper facility, he turned to Frederick Law Olmsted for help. In June 1874, Sargent wrote to Olmsted, proposing that the City of Boston might provide the needed money for the arboretum. The following year, the City of Boston created a Park Commission and eventually hired Frederick Law Olmsted to prepare studies for a park plan. Sargent, along with Olmsted in his new position as park planner, joined forces in a campaign to secure funding for the arboretum by including it in the plans for Boston's park system.

For several years, Olmsted and Sargent worked together to convince the City of Boston and Harvard University's officers to agree to work together to establish the arboretum. Sargent and Olmsted appeared before committees, wrote articles, and persuaded influential citizens to support the project. Finally, on December 30, 1882, Harvard and the City signed an agreement under which the City of Boston received the title to the land intended for the arboretum and then leased it back to Harvard, for an annual fee of one dollar. The City agreed to install and maintain walkways and drives according to Olmsted's design and provide police protection. Harvard would create and maintain the scientific collection of plants and agreed that the arboretum would become part of Boston's park system and would be open to the public rather than used solely as a place of study. After more than nine years as Director, Sargent was at last free to proceed with the project. The long negotiations did prove beneficial in one respect; Sargent had time not only to educate the public as to what an arboretum was, but to win their support.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What is an arboretum?

2. Why did Sargent want to involve the City of Boston in the arboretum project?

3. Why do you think Sargent thought it would be beneficial to have Olmsted's support for the arboretum project?

4. What agreement did Harvard and the City of Boston finally reach?

Reading 1 was compiled from Polly M. Rettig, "Arnold Arboretum" (Suffolk County, MA) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; S. B. Sutton, Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970); and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1982).

¹Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1982), 142.
² S. B. Sutton,
Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 50.

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