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Reclaimed Southern Yellow Pine in BBP

Part 1 of 3: On the Use of reclaimed Southern Yellow Pine in Brooklyn Bridge Park

May 23, 2010

In February 2009 I was hired as the reclaimed wood specialist for Brooklyn Bridge Park. Three gigantic warehouses on the park’s site were to be demolished, and over 1,000,000 board feet of southern yellow pine lumber salvaged from them to be re-used as park benches, picnic tables, decking and architectural cladding. Yellow Pine (also known as “heart pine”) is one of the planet’s most extraordinary wood species, and we were presented with a unique opportunity: to give this material a second life; to be woven into the fabric of New York City’s public realm and appreciated by thousands of New Yorkers for decades to come.

In a series of blog entries, I will tell the story of this remarkable project and hopefully enrich your experience of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

National Cold Storage Warehouse Buildings These buildings, constructed in the 1840’s, were the last remaining vestige of a long row of warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront that received and stored perishables such as fruit, vegetables and meat. In the era before commercial trucking began, New York City’s food supply was brought in by boat, temporarily stored in these warehouses, then distributed throughout the five boroughs. Six-inch thick cork insulation lined the walls, and very little natural light was let in: this was refrigeration in the 1800s.

Like most warehouses built in the Northeast in that period, the Cold Storage Warehouses were constructed of brick perimeter walls surrounding a stout timber-frame core, which supported the floors and the roof. These buildings were designed to take weight, and lots of it; by today’s standards we would consider them to be grossly over-built. The timbers and joists were constructed of the strongest wood possible: the I-beam of the 1800s, with more tensile strength than cast iron - Longleaf Yellow Pine.

Part 2 of 3: Pinus Palustris (Longleaf Southern Yellow Pine)

July 14, 2010

©Etienne Frossard

What makes Longleaf Pine so EXTRAORDINARY is its extremely high resin content. Every conifer produces some amount of pine resin which it uses as an antibiotic to cure wounds like broken branches, and defend the tree from rot, fungus and disease. Longleaf’s resin production far surpasses that of any other conifer, and in some cases the tree is so completely saturated with it that there is hardly any wood fiber, or cellulose, remaining at all.

Pine resin is a thick, sticky liquid that, once solidified over time, is known as “fossil resin” or “amber.” It is not uncommon for longleaf timbers to be constituted of more than 50% amber. Some of the timbers salvaged from the Cold Storage Warehouses had ratios as high as 85% amber to 15% cellulose. These beams, about as heavy as granite, challenge the very definition of what is “wood.” A boatbuilder from Cape Cod, when asked about his opinions on Longleaf, answered: “It’s not even wood.”

These timbers with high resin content are virtually indestructible, for neither rot, fungi, mold or any insect can do damage to them. We saw the opportunity of making park benches that could last decades, even in direct exposure to the outdoor elements: New York’s snowfall, heavy rains, and the beating from the sun.

Part 3 of 3: The Longleaf Ecosystem

July 29, 2010
The Longleaf Yellow Pine tree once dominated the Coastal South East United States, from Virginia, down through the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and parts of Texas. This ecosystem was an enormous Old Growth Forest when the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500’s, spread out over 60 million acres. It is now 99% extinct, logged until its depletion for the purpose, mainly, of producing pine tar and turpentine in the 1700’s and 1800’s. In this forest you would have seen almost no other tree specimens if you walked though part of its endless 150,000 square miles. Only a knee high, bright green “wiregrass” coexisted with it, covering the forest floor like a carpet. The effect of walking amongst these tall pines was described as nothing short of magical. Even a light breeze would make the pine needles whisper and sing high above, and a pine oil fragrance constantly filled the air. A unique park-like openness allowed one to see through the forest.

John Muir, the 19th Century naturalist who is responsible for creating the National Park program, began his famous 1,000 mile walk across the country in order to experience the Longleaf Pine Forest. This is taken from his journal: “the pines (were) wide apart. The sunny spaces in between full of beautiful abounding grasses….covering the ground in garden style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom.”

Lightning played a large role inp. palustris’ evolutionary development, and helps to explain the high production of oleoresin. Tropical storms and hurricanes originating in the Carribean habitually slam Florida and the Southeast coastline with some of the highest lightning strike incidence on earth. These bolts start forest fires, which are fueled by the flammable pine oils contained in the needles fallen off of the pines, thick on the forest floor. P. Palustris developed a bark insulation that could resist temperatures up to 1600 degrees in order to survive these fires, and by taking advantage of the lightning and adding fuel to the fire, helped burn out competing species completely. Only the wire grass would grow back in the charred underbrush.

Others argue that high resin content is more closely related to the red-cockaded woodpecker, the only woodpecker on earth who chooses a living tree in which to build its home; and its preferred tree was longleaf yellow pine. In order to survive the years of the bird’s excavating and scarring, palustris bombards the wounded area with gallons of anti-biotic resin, to sterilize the opening.

Honey bees know well the properties of pine resin, and use it to create a substance known as propolis to completely sterilize their hives (the bee hive is known as the most antibacterial place on the planet). A mosquito body, trapped in pine resin, can endure thousands of years without decomposing. For the purpose of our park’s furnishings, we were eager to make use of these very rot- resistant properties that have saturated the lumber. This has allowed us to happily move away from the four more common choices for outdoor furniture:

1) Mahogany: an amazing outdoor wood, but unfortunately the use of it contributes to rainforest deforestation

2) Teak: also harvested to the point of extinction. AS OF LATE, Buddhist temples made of teak are being DECONSTRUCTED in order to sell the pricey lumber.

3) Pressure Treated Lumber: a soft pine wood is compressed to the point of saturation with poisonous chemicals. This is not good for contact with the skin, with food, (when eating on tables made from it), or the wash off going into the water table, (in our case, the east river).

4) IPE: a very hard Brazilian wood newly imported into the US. Every day, the Amazon Rainforest further diminishes in order to satisfy the U.S.’s demand for IPE.

Hector Ducci is a timber framer, furniture maker, and Reclaimed Wood Specialist for Brooklyn Bridge Park.

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