A Tree-Mendous Effort

 

What happens to trees when they die? What does their life signify? Are they mourned? A venerable maple that presided over the lawn of the Ivoryton Playhouse is sorely missed. Beneath its protective boughs generations of aspiring actors like Katharine Hepburn learned their lines. Nonetheless, it was unceremoniously relegated to the local “stump dump,” to join America’s burgeoning waste stream—that is, until Ted and Zeb Esselstyn rode to the rescue.

The brothers salvaged that thespian wood, dried and milled it, and crafted benches for future actors to enjoy at the playhouse. They’re determined to prove that there is value yet in that special maple—and in thousands of others left to rot or are chipped at local landfills.

City Bench, the company they founded in 2009, turns unwanted wood into fine, vernacular furniture: tables, benches and chairs that celebrate the life-form from whence they sprang. The grain of the horizontal slabs is fully exposed—knots, checks, dark cracks and all—and the design of each piece is often dictated by the curvature of the limb or trunk. And while the backs and railings are more traditional and quite orderly, the expressive tree remnant is the star.

Wood can be quite useful, of course, but the brothers believe there is something more important in what they do. “Every tree has a story to tell, and we try to convey that through our furniture,” says Ted. “We’re creating objects that have more soul than something you can get at IKEA.” Indeed, every piece comes with a card that identifies the tree, where and how it lived and died. In some cases customers already know because the timber hails from their property; their children may have swung from its branches.

For institutions, making use of dearly departed leafy landmarks shows how sustainably minded they are—and finished products can make sentimental fundraising inducements. City Bench recently turned two red oaks on the Yale campus into tables and benches for the university’s organic farm. A stately beech that once stood guard in front of the headmaster’s house at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford now lives on in a table there. Ted, Zeb and two employees are currently working on 20 commissions, including benches for Bradley Airport fashioned from what was the largest American elm in the state. 

The Higganum-based Esselstyns are somewhat unlikely woodworking entrepreneurs. Both are Ivy League grads with advanced degrees—Ted in medicine, Zeb in journalism. But each has extensive experience building houses, and Ted has created environments and exhibits for museums, nature centers and libraries throughout Connecticut. They see their fledgling business as a calling, and speak of trees and the natural world like modern-day Druids. They hope to focus their efforts on urban landscapes, where nature still plays an important, if overlooked, role.

“If you look at a city neighborhood with trees and one without them, it is like night and day,” says Zeb. “They create lushness. They clean the air. Neighborhoods with a green canopy are safer. We need to value this resource. Trees are an important part of our past, of where we live and who we are.” Ted adds, “For people who live in the city, trees can be their only connection with nature. I think we are attracted to street trees because they are soulful and have meaning.”

The brothers are finalizing negotiations over access to city-owned street trees with the City of New Haven, which boasts 32,000 trees—about 600 of which meet their maker every year. Many will now have their useful life extended.

A Tree-Mendous Effort

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