News from the Hilltop

  • Snapshots of St. George's
Main Drive Allée Project Underway

The entrance to St. George’s has been a showstopper ever since school founder, the Rev. John Byron Diman, purchased the land here in 1901 and Old School was sited nearly 200 yards off Purgatory Road. Now, a comprehensive renovation project meant to help preserve our grand entrance for the next 120 years is beginning.

Key to the new plan, according to landscape architect Tom Lee, is a mindset toward sustainability — improving the soil and limiting runoff, as well as removing invasive, non-native plants and replacing them with more appropriate species.

Some sections of the allée have been missing for years. Several of the original trees have died and others are missing significant portions or no longer producing foliage.

Just 28 trees lined the drive during the 2020-21 school year, some from the original planting, but many had been lost to disease and storm damage. Most of the original trees were Norway Maples, at the time known for their fast growth, but now classified as an invasive species.

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Therefore, what remained of the original trees that lined the drive have been removed, and heartier, native trees are being planted in a new, healthy soil mix, along with installing new lampposts along both sides of the drive (there were never any on the west side). In addition, the drive itself will be removed and repaved.

“The more you look at it today, it’s really not reinforcing that sense of procession and ceremony and arrival to the school,” Mr. Lee said.

This summer, 44 trees will be planted along both sides of the drive — 22 American linden (or basswood) and 22 Princeton elms. Eleven new lindens and elms will be planted around the circle.

One factor that went into the decision was how the trees would grow over time. “The trunk of the elm opens up into these graceful, arching branches,” he said. “The linden does not do that — it maintains what we call the central leader – the main trunk — and then the branches start arching and creeping out. So they’re not the same, but they have some compatibility in terms of that branching gracefulness.”

Both trees turn yellow in the fall and are the same stature in terms of future size.

“What the landscape will go back to is the early days of the school, when the entrance was fully planted,” Mr. Lee said.

The new trees, however, will be placed a bit farther off the drive, so as to limit the impact of runoff from the drive on them, particularly from salt used to treat the road in winter.

Also included in the project is the removal of four tennis courts that sit west of the drive. The six courts across Purgatory Road were excavated this spring, and the materials will be ground and repurposed for the new courts being built along the Lower Drive leading to the athletic complex.

With the future already in mind, the Rev. Diman invited Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the man now regarded as “the father of landscape architecture” and who had taken over his father’s practice, to propose a plan for placement of new buildings and plantings.

“Hero donors” have been critical to St. George’s growth and prosperity over the last 125 years. In fact, it was the Newport socialite Jane Parsons Swan who donated the trees along the Main Drive — news first announced in a 1901 edition of The Dragon. A generous benefactor of local institutions like Newport Hospital, Mrs. Swan was a parishioner at Berkeley Memorial Chapel, where Diman had been pastor.

As the restoration of the Main Drive landscape gets underway, the new trees are now being sourced from Northeast nurseries. The best time for planting the new trees will be in the fall, according to Mr. Lee, who estimates they will arrive and be planted in late September or early October 2021.

“To work on this beautiful landscape is incredible,” Mr. Lee said. “The allée — how it follows the land forms, the ridge, right on the spine of it that leads to Old School — and then to see from the east-west direction the ocean beyond all these trees framing the view ... To bring that back to its best state will be like art, like a gallery display of the landscape. And that’s very exciting.”