Saving the big red maple

HAPPY TREE: Twenty years ago, Prtichard Park Task Force members feared that the red maple, left, was dying and would have to be cut down to make way for renovations. But they saved the tree, the oldest and largest in the popular park. (Photo by Nick King)

What did Asheville City Council members think were good ideas for Pritchard Park in 1995, back when Mountain Xpress started covering their weekly meetings?

When Council discussed ideas for renovating Pritchard Park downtown at a Jan. 1995 work session, then-Mayor Russ Martin suggested using a 1940s trolley as a central piece to the park, for which a small task force was trying to raise money to renovate. The trolley — saved from the days when Asheville had one of the nation’s premier electric-trolley services — was just “waiting in a warehouse for us to use,” said Martin. Was restoring it feasible? Restoration might cost $40,000 or more, unfortunately. What other ideas were there for the park?

Council member Leni Sitnick, who would become mayor a few years later, suggested installing life-size sculptures of bears or other public art that would “present the character of Asheville and the area,” Xpress reported.

But, as with Martin’s trolley notion, interest in her idea seemed light at best. Douglas Wilson, Pritchard Park Task Force member, told Council members about the trees at the park — a rare American white birch that was thriving, despite its preference for more extreme climates (like the high elevations at Mt. Mitchell), and a red maple whose root system had been heavily impacted by demolition and construction years earlier for a bus shelter. The maple was producing fewer and fewer leaves each year — a sign of its failing health. It might have to go, Wilson said.

Wilson also noted that a donor stood ready to help fund park renovations and that the task force was seeking a local company to complete a city-funded redesign proposal. Despite Council members’ concerns about budget constraints and the cost of the many studies underway at the time, they gave the go-ahead for park planning to continue.

In the years to come, Pritchard Park did get a major facelift, with the installation of a small amphitheater, benches, landscaping and pathways. Public art also came to downtown. As the Urban Trail took shape, some of its featured art included  “Shopping Daze,” an iron sculpture by Dan Howacyn and Tekla, installed in front of Malaprop’s Bookstore & Café; the dancers in front of the Asheville Civic Center (now called the U.S. Cellular Center); the fanciful bench commemorating Asheville’s first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell; and of course the farm animals prancing in front of Vance Monument.

And today, the red maple remains big and beautiful.

Margaret Williams first freelanced for Xpress in 1994 before joining the staff in early 1995. She’s now its managing editor.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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One thought on “Saving the big red maple

  1. TreeDudeMark

    The big SUGAR maple looks pretty good considering the change it has seen.

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