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Tree Huggers Welcome

Pam and Roland Machold have spent 54 years nurturing Marquand Park

By Ilene Dube | Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

Wedged between Mercer Street, Stockton Street, and Lovers Lane, Marquand Park is a magical oasis in Princeton, a haven of tranquility among majestic and rare trees. Whether blanketed with snow or ablaze with autumn foliage, it offers serenity and community to youngsters and their parents, leaf lovers and tree huggers, ball players and picnickers, butterfly and bird mavens, or those just out to enjoy some fresh air. Most everyone who has ever lived in the area has a story to tell about the park.

Such wonderlands rarely exist without the love and care of impassioned advocates.

In 1965, Pamela and Roland Machold moved from New York City to 158 Mercer Street, right across from the park. Pam was nursing her first child when a newly acquired neighbor implored: “You have to come to this meeting to stop a road from being built through Marquand Park.”

Thus began a 54-year commitment to protect the 17-acre arboretum. (And no, that road was never built.) The Macholds’ second son, Robert, a professor at NYU, met his best friend in the park’s sandbox, and Roly, the oldest, learned to roller skate there. Their daughter, Alysa, brings her children to play in the park.

These days, Pam Machold, 79, loves to tell stories about the park – in fact, she has so many she’s compiling them into a book (she’s already written and illustrated numerous pamphlets and monographs about the park). She and Roland, 82, trade off telling anecdotes, both on public tours (through the Institute for Advanced Study, the Historical Society of Princeton, the Princeton Garden Club, and the Present Day Club) as well as privately. On a particularly sticky spring day, their enthusiasm would not be dampened by weather, and for nearly four hours they shared their passion, never stopping for a re-application of sun block or even a sip of water.

Walking with the assistance of a cane, Roland, a former marathon runner, maintained a pace that was hard to keep up with. As he recounted story after story, factoid after factoid, Pam followed with an armload of supporting documents, pointing to pages in a photo album to illustrate each point. They occasionally competed for air time – I could barely get in a question, though it turned out not to be necessary.

The park was established in 1842 when Judge Richard Field, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and the first cousin of Commodore Robert Field Stockton (grandson of Richard “the Signer” Stockton), purchased a 30-acre farm. In 1855, he hired the architect John Notman, known for such gems as Prospect House and Springdale on the Princeton University campus and Ellarslie Mansion in Trenton’s Cadwalader Park, to create a residence.

Field was inspired by English gardens to develop the surrounding park with oaks and beech trees, a cedar of Lebanon, white pines, and rhododendron, and hired the English gardener Edward Noice. Subsequent owners planted a rose garden, Japanese maples, and Amur cork trees.

In 1881 the property was sold to Allan Marquand, founder of the Art and Archaeology Department at Princeton University, and his wife Eleanor, a self-taught botanist who received an honorary degree from Princeton. It was the Marquands who named the residence Guernsey Hall, after the isle off the coast of England.

By 1953, when both Marquands had died, the estate was divided. Seventeen acres were donated to what was then Princeton Borough for use as a public park, playground, and recreational area. The Marquand Park Foundation was created in 1954 to oversee its care and maintenance.

“Open space wasn’t as valued back then,” Pam notes, explaining the Borough’s reluctance to restrict the use of the land in perpetuity as an arboretum. The property was eyed for a new Borough Hall, but the agreement stipulated that nothing could be built on the property for at least 10 years, during which time Borough Hall was built at another site.

In the 1960s, Guernsey Hall was converted to condominiums by the architect Bill Short, and in 1979, Marquand House (one-time residence of a Marquand daughter and her husband) was bequeathed to the Institute for Advanced Study, which uses it to house guests and for special events and meetings.

Legend has it that before he established Grounds For Sculpture at the New Jersey Fairgrounds, J. Seward Johnson Jr. had eyed the park as a site for a sculpture garden. Others fought for athletic fields beyond the park’s informal baseball diamond.

“We always have had to fight to protect it,” says Pam.

And yet “whenever we come, there are always the right amount of people,” says Roland. “In 54 years, it’s the same amount of people. Don’t tell too many about it – maybe you shouldn’t write your article.”

Roland joined the Foundation board in 1969, but by the mid 1970s, when his work managing the state pension fund became all consuming, Pam replaced him on the board, serving as chair from 2012 to 2016. She’s still on the board, and gives talks about the park to the Princeton Garden Club and the Present Day Club.

After 23 years, Roland retired from the state. Then, in 1999, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman invited him to serve as state treasurer. “I retired again in 2001 – and when I left the state budget still had a surplus.”

Pam had studied art in college, and on her earliest visits to Marquand Park she would draw the trees. “The environment was my first interest, but there were no courses back then,” she says. After raising three children she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in physical therapy. She started the Princeton Child Development Institute, fulfilling a need she perceived from her experience parenting a child with autism.

The Macholds lost a daughter, Elisabeth, when she was 3. A tree is planted in the park in her memory. In some ways, the park is like the Macholds’ fifth child. Their two grandchildren, 12 and 9, live in Anchorage, Alaska, but enjoy playing at Marquand Park when visiting. “They try out the equipment, build snow men, and climb the boulders,” says Pam.

The sand area is named for Eleanor Forsythe, a Crossroads Nursery School teacher and granddaughter to Eleanor Marquand, who designed it as a legacy when she was suffering a terminal illness. Today the playground is home to 40 tons of sand and a fleet of Tonka trucks, a haven where toys are shared.

As a model of a public-private partnership, the park is managed by the municipality, which performs organic debris and large tree removal, trash pickup, mowing, mulching and playground maintenance. The Foundation is responsible for pruning, diagnosis and control of insects and diseases, the planting of new trees, weeding, and watering. In addition to signs on the trees, the Foundation installs QR codes linking to further information.

An Arborist often takes care of all the trees on the lawn. Tree removal, pruning, planting, emergency tree care, cabling, and bracing are some of the services that an arborist often provides. Several years ago Pam brought in Bob Wells, a certified master arborist retained by the Morris Arboretum who has also chaired the Princeton Shade Tree Committee, to inventory the 170 varieties of trees and create a map. Wells now chairs the board. “He has brought new life to the park, as well as new volunteers to weed, prune, and take away debris,” says Pam.

When an old cucumber magnolia stump, filled with concrete, proved to be an insurmountable obstacle, Wells and his crew turned it into a Little Free Library, one that looks like a Hobbit house, stocked with children’s books.

“Before Bob came on board,” says Roland, “we had cleanup day once a year. We advertised it in the paper and no one ever came.” On further reflection, he recalled a time when a church group brought 65 volunteers. “We got a lot done that day – we collected 90 cubic yards of detritus.”

Volunteer Andy Sutphin, a Princeton native, is committed to making the park as special for his children as it was for him. “I learned to climb and fall in this park,” he says. “I met my best friends in the sandbox, playing with Tonka trucks.” He enjoys watching his children reading in, or hanging upside down from, a tree.

This past spring, the Children’s Arboretum was officially launched. Children can plant their own saplings in raised beds, watch them grow, and even take them home. There is a table at which they can do their potting and dinosaur track-shaped stepping stones made from slices of dead trees.

The park has all the usual problems that occur in nature – emerald ash borer, spotted lantern fly, invasive species, and deer – but careful monitoring and treatment help to keep everything in balance. A visitor senses paradise more than nature gone awry, especially when heading toward the section known as Magnolia Hill, where many varieties were blooming at the time of our visit.

“Did you know that the saucer magnolia would not exist if not for a Russian bullet?” asks Roland. Étienne Soulange-Bodin (1774–1846), a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army, was wounded during the retreat to Moscow, and retired to devote himself to developing trees, Roland says. “Soulange-Bodin crossed magnolia denudata with M. liliiflora to create one of the most popularly planted varieties today.”

And then there are all those arboreal treasures, from a blight-resistant hybrid American chestnut and dawn redwood to bald cypress, a clone of the Mercer oak and zelkova trees developed by Princeton Nurseries as an alternative to the blighted elms.

Roland has a story for each, often with a twist. “When the British came and established the colonies, they had exhausted their tall trees,” he says. “But it was fair game if the tree fell in a storm. That’s where the term ‘windfall’ comes from.”

He talks about the different types of wood required for the wheel of a cabriolet, a carriage that predates metal and rubber. The spoke is made from oak or ash, the hub is made from tupelo, and the felloe, or outer rim, from oak or ash.

Roland sits on a bench to tell the story of a 90-year-old resident of Guernsey Hall whose children donated a cherry tree to the park, within view of her window, that bloomed reliably on her birthday.

Did you know that the 17-year locust will return in 2021? Or that the American arborvitae, Latin for “tree of life,” was exported to Europe because it was said to cure scurvy? Its leaves are rich in vitamin C and can be boiled into a tea, and the wood was used to make canoes. Roland enjoys teaching these things to whomever will listen.

In 2016, the park was the subject of a documentary, The Magic of Marquand Park, by Dominique Godefroy and Danielle DeVoe. It premiered at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival and can be seen through a YouTube link on Marquand Park’s website.

“I always thought I’d get back into illustration again, but there are so many stories of rehabilitation here that I have to compile,” says Pam. “By taking care of a microcosm you can affect the world. Every time we come, it’s restorative. It’s like forest bathing. I believe we’re linked to this earth, we are attached to the same ground the trees are.”

As the welcome sign says, “This park is a gift to you.”