Renovations of Varnado Hall seem to have reached an external end, but they occurred not without casualty; three healthy trees that once surrounded the building’s west wing are now kaput.
An additional tree in front of Russell Hall was cut down in July due to storm damage, bringing the tally up to four.
All of these were sitting on land in Northwestern State’s historic district, placed on the national register in June 2014. While this register does not include landscape features, several members of the Trees For Natchitoches Facebook group expressed concern for their removal.
NSU consulted with Bynog’s Tree Service for the examination and later removal of the Russell tree. The company has a Louisiana-licensed arborist on staff, Hamilton Bynog, but could not be reached for comment.
In a statement on the Northwestern State Student Concerns Facebook group, Vice President for University Affairs Dr. Marcus Jones said the following: “While the arborist was removing the limb in the water oak tree at Russell Hall, he noticed more damage than what could be seen from the ground. The storm, of several weeks ago, had caused several fractures and splits in the tree that were not visible [from] the ground.”
A 12- to 14-foot live oak will replace the lost tree, according to Jones.
“It is the general policy of grounds department to only remove trees when they can’t be saved and to replace them with other native trees,” he said. Gil Gilson, capital outlay and special projects coordinator at NSU, echoed this sentiment.
The three trees outside Varnado posed no immediate threat, but the housing contractor, Campus Living Villages, decided to remove them to protect the building’s integrity along with its tenants and visitors.
Rob Archibald, vice president for capital projects at the company, said they did not engage an arborist for consultation or to coordinate the trees’ removal. Instead, Xtreme Tree Service completed this task.
Two of the trees, both loblolly pines, were located on the dorm’s north side along the west wing and leaned toward the building. Evidence of them dates back to at least 1938, a year before Varnado’s opening.
“Our concern with the [two pines] was not that they were about to fall over, but that if they did in the future, whatever the cause, the result would be catastrophic to the property and may have caused injury to staff, residents or visitors,” Archibald said.
A water oak adjacent to the building’s east wing, however, was left standing.
According to Debbie Smith, historical landscape architect at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), the contractor may want to have this tree evaluated by a certified arborist due to its close proximity to the building and what appears to be a weak trunk union – a potential hazard.
She also pointed out a number of hanging dead branches, or “widow makers,” in trees on Varnado’s north side. Removal of these would prevent them falling from the trees and potentially injuring pedestrians.
The final tree in question, a deodar cedar, was located approximately a dozen feet away from the west end of Varnado. It allegedly caused mold due to the shade it created on that side of the building.
“This tree was removed to prevent [further mold damage] from occurring in the future and to add to the visibility around this entry/exit of the building,” Archibald said.
Dr. Mary Striegel, a chemist who works at the NCPTT, listed several possible causes of mold to building interiors but said she would be “very skeptical” to believe the cedar was the cause. The NCPTT, a branch of the National Park Service, is coincidentally located dozens of feet from Varnado in Lee Nelson Hall.
“Most preservation professionals would say [interior mold] would be unlikely to be caused by a tree that is 12 feet away from the building,” she said.
Assistant to the Provost Jennifer Kelly acknowledged neither Campus Living Villages nor the university consulted with a chemist to test the mold and determine if the tree was indeed the culprit.
Centers for Disease Control and and Prevention lists the following as causes of dampness that lead to mold inside buildings: leaking pipes, rainwater intrusion and excessive humidity not corrected by air conditioning.
Jones said he and Stephanie Dyjack, general manager for Campus Living Villages at NSU, discussed a course of action to receive public input before any future changes are made to Varnado’s landscape. The contractor will also submit a landscaping plan proposing new trees to replace the ones that were removed, not necessarily in the same place but near the building.