James Renwick-Smallpox Hospital-Castle-Roosevelt Island-Landmarked Ruin-NYC

When you think of landmarks, you probably think of some of New York City’s oldest buildings, or its stunning skyscrapers. But the breadth of landmarking has increased since the New York City law was passed just over 50 years ago and amidst the over 1600 landmarks in New York City are a fair share of quirky ones, including trees, amusement rides, a ruin, a fence, historic clocks, and more.

1. The Landmarked Tree: The Magnolia Grandiflora in Bed-Stuy

Photo via Wikimedia Commons by Jim Henderson

A Magnolia tree on Lafayette Avenue, between Marcy and Tompkins Avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of only two trees that have been designated as New York City landmarks – and this doesn’t include what is believed to be the oldest and tallest tree in New York City, located in Alley Pond Park, Queens. This tree, of the species Magnolia grandiflora, was planted in 1885 by a William Lemken from a seedling brought back from North Carolina. Placed in front of his townhouse, the evergreen tree releases white lemon-scented flowers which are the state flowers of Mississippi and Louisiana. The Magnolia grandiflora hails from North Carolina, and was one of the first exotic trees to be exported to Europe. It can grow up to 70 feet, but rarely survives north of Philadelphia.

It was designated a New York City landmark on February 3, 1970 by a unanimous vote. In a public hearing however, opinions were more mixed – 9 spoke in favor, 8 were opposed. Regardless, the Landmarks Preservation Commission clearly felt passionate about the tree, writing in the designation report, “It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the seedling which Mr. William Lemken sent up from North Carolina some 85 years ago…should have survived so long. It is thus for its inherent beauty as well as for its rare hardiness that this particular Magnolia grandiflora has become a neighborhood symbol and a focus of community pride.”

In fact, a local resident, Hattie Carthan, was responsible for preserving the tree in the 1950s and raising funds for it in the face of oncoming development – a parking lot and housing projects were planned next to it.

Unlike other landmark designation reports, the Magnolia grandiflora report contained very specific instructions due to the unique nature of the landmark. These specifications included how buildings on the block were to be demolished to make way for the housing project (in order to protect the tree), what thermostat settings needed to be on new basement rooms to be built, and how to care for the ground around the tree. “The Commission, no more than any of the ardent proponents of this designation, wishes to see a dead tree as a Landmark,” they wrote.

Sadly, scaffolding has been up on the brownstone at 679 Lafayette Avenue since 2011 but the Magnolia tree is still standing tall.