So many of my memories of Charles and Ray’s life at home reflect the eucalyptus trees: Ray’s gatherings of fragrant seed pods in baskets (one still set by the entry door) or Charles pausing mid-sentence to photograph a branch, and then continuing on.
As children we were swung – pushed thrillingly high – under the glorious canopy of a giant and enjoying (as Ray said) the best view of the house. Together with Charles and Ray, we marveled at the many thousands of monarch butterflies dancing among the branches and trying to catch them. We climbed some of the more crooked trees – some with rough bark, others with smooth – or simply read, listening to the rustling of the leaves and singing of the birds.
In the years following Charles’ death, I would see Ray would come home, step out of her car and inhale joyously, exhaustion washed away by the eucalyptus scent. All the senses were activated.
In 1948, Charles and Ray’s desire to protect the meadow and the tree rows drove them to redesign the plans for the Eames House. Their goal was realized in their daily living: a residence in harmony with the sea, the meadow and the trees.
“Many of the most pleasant things about the house are things on which we had not planned, but which came one by one as surprises. The difference between the shapes of things in sunlight, twilight, and at night, and the little things that happen in relation to the trees and shadows.”
Charles Eames, Letter to Peter Blake August 15, 1950
These “little things” are a constant source of surprise, the house presenting a fresh view with every visit. How can we preserve them?
As living entities, landscapes are ever-changing. The tiny saplings that Charles and Ray planted when they first moved into their home, are now the size of the trees when they first saw the site. Through the years, the couple encouraged volunteer seedlings to grow, intending for them to be replacements in the even-more distant future.
As the density of the forest has increased, it has obscured the sculptural shapes of the trees. It has caused young trees, shaded by a thick canopy, to grow towards the sun at a sharp angle. It was clear that we would need to reduce the density in order to restore Charles and Ray’s vision. Below left is an image from when they were building the house; on the right is an image from the 2010s. The subsequent image is from 2023.
The removal of trees, especially trees loved by Charles and Ray, is not a decision made lightly. We began in 2014, when an arborist examined the health and structure of each tree larger than 4” in diameter, 246 in all. (A grateful thank you to the Getty Conservation Institute!) While the bulk of the trees were healthy, when viewed long-term, several issues became clear.
First, there was low diversity: 86% of the trees were eucalypti, with the bulk being red gums. The impact of such a risk has already been seen in the succumbing of all 14 of the site’s Victorian box trees to the region’s devastating bacterial leaf scorch.
Second, of the trees originally planted by Abbot Kinney as a late 1880’s forestry experiment, a number were now recommended for removal. With the average life of eucalypti typically ranging from 50 to 150 years per the study, depending upon multiple factors, many were at the riskier end of the range. We would need to encourage new saplings: a healthy forestry guideline recommends a tree population with 10% short SULE/older trees (on site: 8%), 40% medium (60%) and 50% long SULE/young trees (32%).
Finally, even when healthy, a number of trees presented a risk to the structures, whether from roots threatening the slab or from limbs or trunks falling on the roofs.
Over the past seven years, we have removed multiple trees, starting with those that were unhealthy or threatening the structures, including the bulk of the twenty-seven trees specifically identified as higher risk.
The urgency increased in 2022, when the city restricted outdoor irrigation in the face of extreme drought and plummeting state water reserves. With expectations of a dry winter both upcoming and in the future, additional restrictions loomed. We needed to reserve our reduced water allocation for the trees that should be kept, both giants and saplings. To help guide our decisions, Sonic Tomography (above) was performed on our oldest trees in order to identify hidden structural weaknesses, fortunately yielding positive results.
But where these much-loved trees had to be removed, rather than chip them into mulch, we have worked with Angel City Lumber to kiln dry the salvageable wood for use in various projects, led by the Eames Office. Our first, was the Eucalyptus wood table with Herman Miller and Vitra; the second, the Eucalyptus skateboard deck with Globe.
Spirit of place, in addition to risk, is considered. As we plan removals, we are making gaps both as fire deterrents as well as spots where selected saplings can grow straight up to the sun, rather than at an angle. We are exploring less-flameable native California species that can accommodate a changing, more extreme climate, such as live oaks around the perimeter, while keeping the critical rows of red gums around the structures and across the meadow. We are showcasing trees, whether singles and groups, that have the sculptural beauty that Charles and Ray so admired. And, of course, we are identifying and nurturing promising saplings that may carry the Eameses’ spirit forward, so that future visitors may build their own memories of the Eameses’ beloved trees. Trees that they loved so dearly and shared with us.