The Strangest Tree in Downtown Dies

A tree, believed to be a ficus, has been growing high above the ground on the south-facing wall of a building at 351 S. Broadway for several years. Architect and developer David Gray is in the midst of a $7.5 million renovation of the structure, and last week workers discovered 60 feet of roots beneath tons of dirt. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — The mystery surrounding the strangest tree in Downtown has been solved. Regrettably, it coincided with the death of the hearty piece of urban greenery.

BE THE FIRST TO READ THE LATEST DOWNTOWN NEWS, FOOD AND CULTURE STORIES. CLICK HERE AND SIGN UP FOR OUR DAILY HEADLINES NEWSLETTER.

The 12-foot tall tree, growing out of the fifth floor of a south-facing wall at 353 S. Broadway, has long puzzled passersby. It also stumped the building’s owner, David Gray, who first spotted it in late 2011. No one could determine how it had taken root. In a 2013 Los Angeles Downtown News story, a curator at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden theorized it might be a ficus, as they can take root in unlikely places that lack dirt if a bird happened to drop a seed in a spot where there is some moisture.

The solution is far less spectacular. Last week, as construction workers were cleaning out the building as part of Gray’s $7.5 million renovation, they discovered several tons of dirt that had been topped with a flat slab. The 1911 building, which once housed Graysons department store, was designed to be seven stories, but the original builders stopped at five, he said.

Coursing through the dirt were 60 feet of tree roots. They have now been removed.

 “That sucker had a good life. It was growing like a weed,” Gray said.

Gray admits to being sad about killing the tree, though its removal was a necessity in the building’s transformation. He said he saw a parallel between the tenacity of the tree and the momentum of a revitalized Broadway. Both are symbolic of a Downtown determined to survive, he said.

His project is slated to turn the century-old edifice, which has been vacant since the 1970s, into an office building, and he plans to add an additional floor and create a bar. The project is scheduled to be completed next March.

While the roots have been hauled away to make room for that sixth floor, the lifeless tree protrudes, for now at least, from the building. Gray said he intends to remove it soon, though he hopes to plan a fitting send-off for the scrappy sap.

“I’m thinking of tying it to a hearse and driving it up and down Broadway with a police escort. It’s famous,” he said.

         donna@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @donnadowntown

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014