As the workers began cutting down the giant white ash, dismembering the oldest tree on the lawn of the oldest statehouse still used by lawmakers, the pieces crashed with a thud that shook the ground and startled onlookers who had gathered somberly to watch.
The tree had soared 100 feet into the air on a trunk that was 4 feet across at its base. Estimated to be 150 years old, it was a mere sprout when lawmakers gathered under the dome of the State House to debate the coming Civil War. In later years, it stood as a silent sentry as they voted to free the slaves and save the bay. Bridges and beltways and stadiums and schoolhouses were conceived as the seasons passed and buds turned to leaves and the leaves then fell.
The white ash was the largest of three trees that were deemed diseased or badly decayed by state officials and arborists; all are in the vicinity of the Old Treasury Building on the east side of the State House. By tomorrow, few traces will be left of the trees that shaded nearly a quarter of the grounds in the state capital: the ash, a 40-inch-wide-by-80-foot-tall linden and a 32-inch-wide tulip poplar.
"It just seems so sad that those trees are so old, and now they're gone," said Carolyn Pastorini, who works at a flower shop across the street from the State House. "It's like part of Annapolis history dying."
On the eve of what forecasters predict may be an active hurricane season, state officials and the State House Trust - a committee that oversees the Capitol and its preservation and landscaping - determined that winds from a strong storm could fell the trees, destroy nearby historic buildings and endanger safety.
The lawn that surrounds the State House - with red brick walkways and benches in the shade - is believed to have been designed by Maryland artist Francis Blackwell Mayer in the late 19th century, said Mimi Calver, director of exhibits and artistic property for the Maryland State Archives.
The white ash was shaped like a slingshot, split into two large "stems" near the base of the tree, a defect that contributed to its decay and danger as it leaned perilously over the Old Treasury Building. The linden, next to the ash, had been struck by lightning at least twice and was decaying from base to top. The poplar, diseased and clearly dead and lingering over Maryland Avenue at the edge of the lawn, was in the worst shape, said David DiPietro, an arborist for the company tasked with taking down the trees.
"It wouldn't need to be a windy day" for any of the trees to fall, DiPietro said.
"We prefer to keep trees up," said DiPietro, of Illinois-based The Care of Trees. "I would much rather keep our guys busy keeping trees healthy and maintaining trees than cutting them down. It's much more rewarding."
Workers used cranes hoisted from trucks parked next to the Old Treasury Building to cut down the ash and linden yesterday, sawing the trunks into smaller pieces and shredding the branches in a chipper parked on State Circle. The ash, linden and poplar - which will be removed today - will be recycled and turned into firewood or mulch, DiPietro said.
Julie Varner, an Annapolis resident who ducked into a restaurant to escape the deafening noise of the chipper, said she will miss the trees the next time she walks through the grounds and sits on the benches, something she does often. The view from across the street was open straight to the State House from where she stood, an area that, like most of the lawn, had been shaded before.
"You understand that a tree has to go down if there are questions about whether it can withstand a storm, but now there's like a big hole in the grounds," she said. "It's a shame to see old trees go."