Historic Harlem Parks

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 one year later 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 lawns, made horticultural and structural improvements, and cleaned and cleared the park to increase visibility.

Kiel received his medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine in 1986 and joined the staff of the Staten Island and University Hospital in 1988. Dr. Kiel was an associate fellow of the American College of Surgeons, a diplomat 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 modeled after an arboretum proposed by Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) in their winning park design, the Greensward Plan. 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 went on to design public parks and private estates throughout the United States, and although their initial plan for Morningside Park was rejected in 1873, their 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. 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 create an informative arboretum and provide a fitting memorial to Dr. Thomas Kiel, a young man dedicated to the beauty of Morningside Park. 

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