Van Vleck’s Beech Tree and the Spirit of Community Giving

by Christine Adams Beckett

Chinese Wisteria in Full Bloom at the Van Vleck House and Gardens

My friend Jessica lives in an enviable locale, directly across the Street from the Van Vleck House and Gardens.  Bequeathed to The Montclair Foundation in 1992 after Howard Van Vleck’s death, the house and grounds have been home to many different not-for-profit groups and also act as a back yard for those villagers who don’t have access to their own.  The grounds, currently undergoing extensive renovations, are home to many of Howard’s famous hybridized rhododendrons, mostly registered in the names of the loved ones in his tribe, but were never marketed for financial success.   Instead, they dot the landscape like selfless living testaments to his love for those long gone.  They are also a treat to the eye for children of all ages utilizing the gardens for a picnic on a Saturday afternoon, taking advantage of a birding course or sketching during a garden journaling club meeting.  The gardens are open from dusk until dawn for individuals, 365 days a year.  Kids come on snow days to build snow men, and come back in May to see the famous Chinese wisteria in full bloom.  In fact, it’s a favorite time for all ages to picnic: when the ancient tangled purple vine of Wisteria is in full bloom, supported by its specially-designed iron posts, and choking the portico with vibrant color.

The grounds were home to the Van Vlecks for close to 140 years, and although the Mediterranean style villa has only been standing since 1916, when Joseph Van Vleck designed and built it, it still stands as a wonderful example of what life looked like in Montclair at the turn of the Century.  Howard, Joseph’s grandson and its last private owner, actually left his job in the city in the late 1930s to pursue his interests in the arts, architecture and horticulture full time in Montclair.

Jessica has an enormous, mature beech tree in her front yard which is much like those rhododendrons, a living example of the spirit of community that surrounded the Van Vlecks.  Around the Turn of the Century, this beech tree and others just like it were gifted by Joseph to his neighbors and friends about town, many surviving today that can be seen along South Mountain Avenue.  Although there is much dispute between Van Vleck groundsmen, local arborists and landscaping experts, Jessica believes it to be of the European variety rather than American.  But one thing is universally agreed upon: that the life cycle of these beautiful monsters are not infinite.  Although the American beech can live for up to 400 years in moist, shaded soils, typically in suburban locales they live for about 100, which means Jessica’s may be nearing the end of its natural life cycle, sadly.

Not if Jessica has anything to say about it.  Hers is loved for, tenderly, with a mulch bed of no less than 100 feet in diameter where nothing else is cultivated — nary an autumn chrysanthemum — to protect its shallow and vulnerable root system.  Arborists and tree experts have come to see her tree and to speculate about its origins, and carefully prune its branches, which she feels does more harm than good.  When she noticed that any branch that had been clipped back had subsequently died, she has been very careful about cutting, seeking several opinions.  She lovingly describes the dramatic nature of its fall foliage, its leaves turn a dark eggplant color and fall almost all at once late in the season like a grand finale of natural fireworks.

Perhaps Jessica’s beech is a smaller example of the giving nature of the Van Vleck family, but what a terrific neighborly gesture: one that remains as tangible evidence of civic mindedness and spirit, and appropriately under the care of Jessica, who is no stranger to volunteerism herself.  She has been on the scenes for The Montclair Public Library Foundation, the Van Vleck House and Garden, The Montclair Art Museum and the Edgemont Montessori School Parent Teacher Association.  And these are only the ones of which I have personal knowledge.

Jessica, even in her joking ways and casual demeanor, is a romantic.  With twin babies and two other children besides, a larger house was needed.  But when she stepped off the porch with the real estate agent on Van Vleck Street and noted that the initials “M.D.” were carved in the beech, she knew the house was home, as those are the initials assigned to both her parents.  The house needed substantial work, as is typical of older homes, but this one featured a kitchen with no cabinets.  But it also had a spooky basement with graffiti on the walls that was signed by children with the same names of her own.  Must be a sign that this was The One…  Cabinets or no cabinets.

She has lovingly cared for the house, which is known in its own rite.  Charmingly, Jessica assumed those stopping to take photographs outside her house were interested in the tree, but in fact, the house itself, known as the William H Jewett house after its inaugural occupant, was the star attraction.  It is a rare and shining example of the stick and shingle style of architecture, and drawn by noted architect Alexander Oakey in 1886, the Golden Age of Montclair’s art community.  She simply assumed that those stopping and snapping photographs must have wanted a souvenir of her gorgeously gnarled, strong, massive beech tree, which resembles an even larger version of an elephant’s leg, its grey trunk measuring several feet in diameter.

The tree has survived about 100 years of changing weather patterns, micro bursts, hurricanes and freak October snowstorms, which brought down other species just mere yards away.  Ones lost in the neighboring Van Vleck gardens, notably, have been replaced by beech saplings to match Jessica’s.  This is a town noted for our shade trees, with a municipal staff that’s dedicated to preserving the leafy nature of our streets.  Not-for-profits have been established to preserve and restore our shady town.  My bet is that this historic beech will make it, especially in the care of Jessica, a similarly-minded Montclair villager with a mind for the greater good, even when it comes to the seemingly simple gestures.

For more information about the Van Vleck House and Gardens, including a full schedule of Spring events, you can find it by clicking here.

For a glimpse of Jessica’s gorgeous beech tree, please click here to see Jill Ann Siegel’s lovely photographs.

For a way in which to get involved in re-planting Montclair after major losses in the wake of recent storms, please click here to see Replant Montclair’s website.