By Summer Allen
If you’ve ever gazed in wonder at the towering copper beech tree encircled by the Portland State library, you’re not alone. The historic tree has captured the hearts of Vikings and visitors alike for over 125 years.
This Friday, on the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, PSU’s copper beech will be inducted into the Oregon Heritage Tree program as Oregon’s 81st State Heritage Tree. And you’re invited to the celebration!
In honor of this festive occasion here are seven things you may not know about PSU’s celebrity tree:
1. The copper beech was originally planted in someone’s yard
The tree was planted on Park Avenue in front of the house of J. Frank Watson and Mary (Whalley) Watson around 1892. J. Frank Watson himself was a transplant from Massachusetts who found success in Portland where he worked as the president of a bank, managed an iron works and started a shipbuilding company.
The Park Blocks changed a lot over the course of the next 50 years as the neighborhood became home to more apartment buildings and boarding houses rather than single family estates. In 1943, the Vedanta Society of Portland moved into the Watson house and turned it into a spiritual center.
2. Students protested the removal of trees during campus expansion
In 1965, Portland State acquired the Park Ave. property including the beech tree to prepare for construction of Phase One of the campus library. While keeping the tree was always part of the plans for the new library, Portland State students protested the loss of other trees—as well as small businesses and housing—during the expansion of campus.
From the PSU archives:
The loss of the old neighborhood was felt by PSC [Portland State College students]. Yearbooks of this period as well as student editorials in the Vanguard newspaper reflect student discontent and resistance to the loss of housing and small businesses around campus as the college expanded. The 1966-67 Viking yearbook also refers to “the Swami, spiritual adviser to many a student,” being moved out—probably Swami Aeseshananda of the Vedanta Society.
Alumnus Ed Washington related the story of PSU student and activist Joe Uris and others protesting the removal of “Papa John’s” grocery store and street trees on Broadway between Montgomery and Harrison streets. Uris and protesters surrounded the trees on Broadway to prevent their removal.”
3. PSU once considered trying to move the beech
In 1971, PSU’s landscape superintendent William Becht consulted with a tree surgeon to see if the beech and its roots could be moved two blocks.
“The tree surgeon declined the ‘intriguing challenge’ of moving the 80-year-old tree as a ‘presumptuous and foolish’ idea with an ‘astronomical’ cost,” according to the PSU archives.
4. The beech helped shape the design of the library — literally
When the PSU library was expanded in the late 1980s, the design concept was centered around preserving and highlighting the copper beech, which was considered a “valuable asset to the campus.” The result? The breathtaking curved glass wall that makes the library one of the prettiest buildings on campus.
From the 1986 design concept summary:
“…the building form emerged as a singular mass with a large half round shape removed to accommodate the existing tree. The resulting indentation serves as the building’s entry courtyard. Perimeter shear walls are used to frame the courtyard and contain the six floor faceted glass wall. All library public areas are located adjacent to the glass wall with views of the tree and park blocks beyond.”
5. Beech trees have strong literary roots
An article in The Oregonian by Jane Sansregret highlights how fitting it is that the PSU library is nestled around a copper beech of all trees:
“The beech tree is ideally suited for a library planting. Besides outstanding landscape features, the tree has been linked with reading and writing from early times. In ancient India, Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of beech bark and the custom of inscribing on the smooth bark was brought to Europe by migrating Eurasians. The word book is traced to the Anglo-Saxon boc which means a character or letter; and boc is derived from beece, the Anglo-Saxon word for beech.”
Sansregret also notes that Virgil, Shakespeare, and Daniel Boone all reportedly wrote on beech bark
6. The copper beech is already a heritage tree
The PSU Copper Beech was designated as a Portland Heritage Tree on July 19, 1995. The beech was Portland’s 54th heritage tree.
7. After 125 years, the tree had its first birthday party
The PSU library had a 125th(ish) birthday party for the copper beech in 2015, complete with a public gathering and refreshments.
The information in this blog post comes from the PSU archives collection about the copper beech tree, which contains a timeline, supporting documents and photos of the tree. You can also check out “The Million Dollar Tree” by Cristina Rojas from the Spring 2021 issue of Portland State Magazine.