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Morningside Park

Dr. Thomas Kiel Arboretum

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This arboretum (a Latin word meaning "a place grown with trees") was named in memory of one of Morningside Park’s most dedicated volunteers, Dr. Thomas Kiel (1960-1996). Born in Meriden, Connecticut, Kiel attended Columbia College in Morningside Heights. As a college senior, he founded the Friends of Morningside Park in the fall of 1981. Even after Kiel graduated with a B.A. in 1982 and moved out of the neighborhood, he faithfully returned to Morningside Park to volunteer alongside other community members. While he was chairman, the Friends group launched a fundraising program, organized special events, replanted lawn areas, made horticultural and structural improvements, and cleaned and cleared the park to increase visibility.

Kiel received his M.D. degree from the New York University School of Medicine in 1986 and joined the staff of the Staten Island and University Hospital in 1988. He shared a private practice with Dr. George Ferzli, and together they published several articles about medical surgery and the digestive system. Dr. Kiel was an associate fellow of the American College of Surgeons, a diplomate of the American Board of General Surgery, and a first-place winner in the annual paper competition of the Society of Medicine of Richmond. Tom Kiel died tragically, at the age of 36, in a trailbike accident during a ten-day tour from Brisbane to Ayers Rock, Australia.

The Kiel Arboretum was inspired by a description of the arboretum proposed for the northeast corner of Central Park in 1858. The latter arboretum was one of the original features of the "Greensward" plan created by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. In 1858 Olmsted wrote, "This arboretum is not intended to be formally arranged, but to be so planned that it may present all the most beautiful features of lawn and wood-land landscape, and at the same time preserve the natural order of families, so far as may be practicable." Winding paths were to direct visitors amongst 112 different species of trees, from Magnolia virginiana (sweet bay magnolia) to Juniperus virginiana (red cedar), and 169 species of shrubs, from Atragene Americana (glory bower) to Taxus Canadensis (ground hemlock).

Ultimately, the Central Park arboretum was not planted. The 1868 revised plan of the park labeled this area "Unfinished Ground"; it was later landscaped and designated as the East Meadow. Olmsted and Vaux were commended for their work in Central Park and won commissions to design public parks and private estates throughout the United States. Although their initial plan for Morningside Park was rejected in 1873, Olmsted and Vaux’s revised plan was accepted in 1887. Construction of Morningside Park was completed in 1895.

In 1998 Olmsted and Vaux’s arboretum took root in Morningside Park. Land was set aside from the foot of the entrance stairway at 116th Street north to 121st Street for a new planting program modeled on the original arboretum plan. The Kiel Arboretum was initiated with a first planting of trees from the Magnoliaceae (magnolia) family and shrubs from the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) and Berberidaceae (barberry) families. Plantings of additional tree and shrub families have created an informative arboretum and provided a fitting memorial to Dr. Thomas Kiel, a young man dedicated to the beauty of Morningside Park.

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