City Bench works with gifts provided by nature

When the grand old maple in front of Ivoryton Playhouse came down in 2010, it marked the loss not just of a tree but of some history.

Under this 120-year-old giant, generations of actors gathered, learning lines. It was so iconic a leafy refuge that famed illustrator Al Hirschfeld drew his own version. This is a theater, after all, where such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando performed early in their careers.

When Ted Esselstyn heard that the theater's executive director was seeking someone to turn the downed maple into furniture, he was keenly interested. Esselstyn and his brother, Zeb, have been making furniture from trees - trees with histories that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill - since June 2010 with their City Bench business in the Higganum section of Haddam.

In the interim, though, an arborist had deemed the Ivoryton tree too rotten for use, and it had been relegated to a stump dump in Old Saybrook.

"I called the arborist and said, 'Will you take me down there, and let's find some of those upper limbs? I'm sure there's something I can work with,'" Ted Esselstyn says. "So we plucked out all these limbs from the tree that were beautiful - the trunk was totally gone, but the limbs were fine."

City Bench has since transformed those limbs into a half-dozen big bowls, which the Ivoryton Playhouse has been giving to people who have done something special for the playhouse.

A big piece became a rustic bench that sits in the Ivoryton Playhouse lobby. Another bench found a home at a gallery across the street.

Jacqui Hubbard, Ivoryton Playhouse executive director, says that the theater had been hoping to save that tree - nurturing it, even bringing in a tree doctor to tend to it.

"It's funny. So many people are so attached to trees," she says. "When we first thought we'd have to take that tree down, people came out of the woodwork - that's a bad pun - saying, 'You cannot take that tree down. You have to save that tree.'"

But it couldn't be rescued, at least in that form. With the furniture created from it, Hubbard says, "It made people very happy that we were able to save part of it."

Yet another bench created from that landmark is featured at a Connecticut Historical Society exhibition focusing on City Bench's work. The show, which runs through March 17, highlights a variety of pieces. Alongside each are details of the trees' family histories - birthplaces, significance, and life stories. Among the items showcased, for instance, is one bench that City Bench made from the largest American elm in Connecticut - it grew on a dairy farm run by generations of the same family in Suffield. The bench had been on view before this exhibition in Bradley Airport.

The Esselstyns love the idea that these trees are sort of silent witnesses to history.

"Whether it's through a place like Ivoryton Playhouse or Yale or Saint Francis Hospital or whoever it is who might have trees on their campus they might revere - we'd love to be able to catch them before they go over to the landfill," Ted Esselstyn says. "Everybody needs firewood, everybody loves mulch, but I do think you can preserve bits of history."

Indeed, sustainability is one of the driving forces behind City Bench.

The idea for the business sparked when Ted Esselstyn, as an artist and designer, was creating children's spaces in libraries and museums. One of his last installations was for an exhibition on sustainability at the CRRA Trash Museum in Hartford. He began thinking about how he could be a more responsible artist.

A friend suggested he check out groups in Seattle that work with urban street trees.

"And boom, the lightbulb went on. That's it," he says.

Ted Esselstyn has long been interested in carpentry, even when he was in medical school. (His wife is a doctor, too, and ultimately they decided that, as Ted has said, one doctor in a family was enough.) Zeb Esselstyn majored in journalism in college and worked in advertising and other jobs before settling into City Bench.

"It's been so meaningful to make objects that connect with people, that are soulful, in a way," Ted Esselstyn says.

One such example: a couple bought a dining room table made from a walnut tree from Stony Creek, where they used to summer.

The whole City Bench process is an intensive one. There's the labor involved in picking up the trees. Those trees have to dry for six to eight months by air. Then, they're brought to the City Bench site - three barns behind Ted Esselstyn's house - and put in the kiln. A day or two of design is followed by the actual fabrication, which can run anywhere from two days to three weeks.

A coffee table usually costs between $1,500 and $2,500. A stool is $250 and up.

City Bench hires local artisans and uses trees that grew in the area - in a way, it's part of the "local" movement, the push to celebrate things that are special to the region.

"People can meet us, shake our hand, and talk to us about their design. It's very experiential," Ted Esselstyn says. "When people hire us to do something, they're not buying it off a shelf."

Although they could. City Bench has a store in New Haven where the public can go and buy a piece.

Ted Esselstyn says he prefers, though, when people come out and design with City Bench. They look at the slabs and might even watch their trees be milled.

The wider City Bench's reputation spreads, the more people seek them out with potential trees. Earlier this month, an arborist Ted Esselstyn had never met before said he was taking down a massive tree in Haddam that had grown in the back yard of John Cook. Cook had been a spy for John Brown before the raid on Harpers Ferry in the 1850s. Cook tried to escape into the hills of Pennsylvania after the failed raid but was hunted down and hanged.

That kind of backstory gives the tree an added richness - and makes it just right for City Bench.

If you go

What: “New Life for Connecticut Trees: Furniture by City Bench”

Where: Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth St., Hartford

When: Through March 17; noon-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.

Admission: $8 adults; $6 seniors 65 and over; $4 ages 6-17 and students with valid college ID; free CHS members and age 5 and under

Contact: (860) 236-5621, chs.org

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