As The Boston Globe reported on April 2, 1997, residents were “digging out of a spring blitz.” The day before (yes, April Fool’s Day), people in the area woke up to 2 feet of snow and high-wind damage.
One casualty was a beloved silver maple tree on Hurlbut Street in Cambridge’s Neighborhood 9. A branch had crashed down on a car, prompting the city to look into the tree’s health. Cambridge’s Department of Public Works determined the tree needed to be torn down; it was rotted, and they didn’t want it causing further damage.
But late Harvard anthropologist Irv Devore, who lived on the street, didn’t want to see the tree go. Devore and the other neighbors referred to it as the “Winnie-the-Pooh house” because of its crazy roots and cavities. It was a fantasy land icon come to life.
That’s where wood sculpture artist Mitch Ryerson came in.
For a few years, Ryerson had been carving Cambridge tree stumps into chairs. The city “usually takes the upper part of the tree first with a crane, then they leave the stump and they come back later” for the rest, Ryerson said. “I saw some of these around and wanted to do something with them.”
Ryerson made a proposal to the Cambridge Arts Council and got a small grant to turn tree stumps into chairs. He would eventually create 10 or so. About halfway through his work, Ryerson found out about the Hurlbut Street tree.
“I was contacted by the city’s arborist to see if I knew this tree was coming down,” Ryerson said, adding that it was a “prime candidate” for his type of community art.
So he partnered with Devore and the Department of Public Works and got started.
They cleaned out the inside of the tree, which was mostly hollowed out already, and made a little Pooh house in the very bottom.
“We made windows so you could peak through and see furniture, and [we] made a door,” Ryerson said. “Then were was a seat so you could sit over that.”
Other features include an intricate roof and a weathervane. In the upper part of the hollowed-out portion, there is a lending library and a journal that Devore maintained in which children from all over the world leave messages to Winnie-the-Pooh.
Over the years, about 50 or so journals were filled, Ryerson said. He still has some of them, and Devore’s wife had the rest.
“They are sort of inspirational to look at,” Ryerson said. “If you are doing public art, things get abstract, so it’s cool to read something like that. It’s really down to earth.”
Over the past 20 years, the neighborhood maintained the tree. Ryerson said he did repairs a couple of times, but it was mostly the neighbors that kept the fantasy land going.
Kids from all over the world come here to get a glimpse of a world they only read about in books. Local schools would go to read poetry, inspired by the works of the legendary A.A. Milne.
But the tree is seeing its final days.
In the next couple of weeks, the Department of Public Works will have to remove the same tree they helped save 20 years ago.
Cambridge Day originally reported that neighbors received notice that lead pipes need to be replaced, the road is set to be repaved, and work will be done on the sidewalk — leaving no way to save the tree.
“It lasted 20 years, which is amazing,” Ryerson said.
Things like this are beneficial for neighborhoods and cities, he said.
“It’s sad that it’s gone, but I think it was good,” he said. “Hopefully it’s good for cities to have unexpected funky stuff on streets that’s not sort of planned.”
Due to incorrect information provided to realestate.boston.com, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the status of the journals.