Lawrence lost one of its oldest trees this week, not all at once but piece by piece.
The buzzing sounds in the West Hills subdivision Wednesday weren't locusts but chainsaws taking down a roughly century-old cottonwood in front of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house on Emery Road.
Dave Steen, president of the Kappa Sigma Corporation Board, said a contractor doing work on the nearby Kappa Delta sorority had in June accidentally severed some of the tree's roots while digging for a drainage pipe. Local tree experts, including from the city of Lawrence, examined the cottonwood and couldn't rule out that it wouldn't one day fall over, whether by heavy winds or an ice storm, he said.
Kappa Sigma officials weren't willing to leave the frat house and cars and pedestrians on the street at risk. The contractor, Ottawa-based Loyd Builders, agreed to remove the cottonwood and replace it with new trees, Steen said. The project supervisor, Seth Martin, hadn't returned calls seeking comment as of Thursday afternoon.
Fraternity members and passersby could be overheard this week mourning the loss of the old hardwood tree, which residents say fit right into the forest-like neighborhood it had long been a part of. Topeka-based Custom Tree Care, which removed the cottonwood, judged by its rings that it was between 100 and 110 years old. It was an estimated 80 feet tall and 72 inches across at the base.
"It's awful that we have to lose the tree," said Patricia Harbaugh, house mother for Kappa Sigma, adding that she has estimates showing the tree to be worth $20,000 based on years of growth.
Robert Lewis, who lives in the neighborhood, was upset the tree was coming down but recognized there were no other options. "It was only a matter of time before the whole thing was going down," he said.
While Kappa Sigma officials are disappointed to see the tree go, they know they were left with no choice.
"If there had been any reasonable way to save it without tremendous liability of failing over on anyone, we'd try to save it," said Steen, who graduated from Kansas University in 1971, when the iconic tree was about half as tall. "It's a shame because it's kind of a nice, impressive sight: on a sloping hill, a big old tree up there. You just can't replace a 90-foot-tall cottonwood."