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Our Floating Forest Takes Flight

By Wendy Gentry, on December 10, 2018
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When it comes to the logistics behind Christmas at Longwood, we take this well-practiced approach: start with what you know and find out what you don’t. With this year’s floating forest display above the Fern Floor, we had much to learn, much to test, and much to love about this intensely logistics-focused display—with a beautiful result.

We first came up with the idea to hang Christmas trees over the length of the Floor during a Christmas 2018 display brainstorming meeting, which was held in early January, even before the Christmas 2017 display had been taken down. I remember everyone around the table nodding their head in agreement when that idea was offered—that moment when everyone agrees and starts to buy into an idea is the best.

Then, our questions started. “How many trees? What kind of tree? What size trees? How high? Do they need lights? Ornaments? Should they rotate? Will we need an arborist? How can we attach them?” It’s here that the beginning of a Christmas display idea takes shape, and we knew it would take several months and lots of questions before the idea could become reality. After leaving a brainstorming meeting like this one we all usually look at each other and ask the same questions: “What were we thinking?” And, of course: “We can do it … but how?”

A series of napkin drawings illustrates the calculations and considerations behind the positioning of the suspended trees. Photo by Wendy Gentry.A series of napkin drawings illustrates the calculations and considerations behind the positioning of the suspended trees. Photo by Wendy Gentry.

After the idea came the harder part: logistics. The nuts and bolts of every project are usually the scariest for us, but also the most fun. Figuring out logistics forces us to think inside and outside of the box, requires the assistance of many of the talented craftsmen here at Longwood, and gives the horticulture team an opportunity to work with them on another level.

We start our logistics planning with conceptual sketches. I usually do mine on a napkin. Longwood’s Associate Director, Landscape Architecture and Program Designer Erin Feeney was able to provide us with a CAD plan of the Fern Floor trees and the heights she thought they should hang. Once we determined that we would suspend a total of 17 live Fraser fir trees “right side up” to fill the space, we knew we needed a water reservoir to support the trees. We knew that there are three winches in the truss system over the Fern Floor. The center winch is our strongest, as it can hold 2,000 pounds; the two flanking winches can handle 1,200 pounds each.

From that point forward, we focused our planning on weight load and safety and started talking clevises, point loads, winch capacity, truss load points, and breaking strengths of cable. Every piece of this Fern Floor puzzle had a weight consideration, and safety was a top concern—the safety of our guests and staff always comes first when we make any plan.

It was at this point we got a call that we almost never get. The call came from Erin and she told us that because the Fern Floor display idea was so well received, we would need do a full scale mock-up of the project—meaning we had to now get 17 “Christmas” trees in June. We all had to laugh as we pulled back into Longwood with a truck load of Christmas trees on an 85-degree day.

The mock-up morning was an early one, as the display had to be put up, reviewed, and taken down before we opened to the public at 9:00 am. We were all waiting with a tree in hand at 5:00 am. We attached the trees to existing basket frames (a hexagon and two triangles) and as I pushed the “up” button on the winch control I held my breath just a little.

Our 17 trees and hexagon frame await their mock-up moment of truth. Photo by Koa Kanamee.Our 17 trees and hexagon frame await their mock-up moment of truth. Photo by Koa Kanamee.

The hexagon went up first, holding six trees suspended from the frame and one from the winch cable. Then we lifted the two triangles that each held three trees. We had now suspended 13 trees, which left four to be suspended. We determined that those remaining four trees would need to be put up by our arborists, as those trees would be hung from outside of our three winches. Lucky for us, the arborists were able to hang two of the four before the close of our mock-up so that we could see the outermost trees in place.

Trees are shown suspended from our hexagon frame during our June display mock-up. Photo by Koa Kanamee.Trees are shown suspended from our hexagon frame during our June display mock-up. Photo by Koa Kanamee.

The mock-up confirmed a few key things. One, we could do it. Two, the trees could be suspended far enough apart from each other to achieve our desired aesthetic. Three, we needed all 17 trees to fill the space. Four, they needed to be lit. Five, the project was a definite GO! We removed the mock-up trees and weighed them so we felt comfortable with our weight estimates moving forward.

After our mock-up, we needed to find a way to water these trees without lowering them to the ground, so I set out with my napkin drawing in hand to pay a visit to Senior Mechanic Dave Beck in the metal shop, who is always ready to problem solve. Together, Dave and I assessed that we would need 17 tree stands made with a rounded bottom and weighing less than 80 pounds. In fact, the entire cable and stand system for each tree had to weigh less than 80 pounds and we had to take into account the weight of the water—8.34 pounds per gallon to be exact. After a couple days of reviewing the project, Dave called me with a thought: “What about using the end of a propane tank? It’s the correct diameter and I can weld a stand inside of it.” A stand was born.

Once Dave developed a prototype of the stand, it was the moment of truth. We had to determine how heavy each stand was and how much water it could hold. The stand came in at 47 pounds and we decided on using 3 gallons of water (totaling 24 pounds) so we were at 71 pounds. Add in 4 pounds for the collar and the cable and we topped out at 75 pounds, an entire 5 pounds less than our maximum weight for each tree’s cable and stand system. Success!

We knew that in order for the tree to be adjusted we would need to add turnbuckles to the stand system, so at the top of each tree we decided to install a collar that branched into three cables. These cables could attach to the stand with turnbuckles, so we could straighten the trees before they were lifted into place. We had the ability to suspend each tree and keep each live tree watered.

By this point, we were figuring our largest tree, which would be 12 feet tall, would weigh 175 pounds. We had calculated our maximum point load of 260 pounds for each tree, so we knew if we kept the weight of the largest tree under 260 pounds, we would come under maximum point load on all other trees. That left us 85 pounds per tree for lights and ornaments!

It was our best estimate that we would need approximately 4,500 total ornaments to decorate our 17 trees; that’s approximately 260 ornaments per tree. It was time to get creative, while still keeping weight requirements in mind. After selecting the ornaments we wanted to use and weighing each one, we determined that the largest tree would hold 15 pounds of ornaments. Each light strand weighs shy of 1 pound and the largest tree could expect 15 strands, which is 15 pounds of lights. At best estimate, we were assuming that the largest 12-foot tree would come in weighing 205 pounds. That gave us 55 pounds of wiggle room before hitting the maximum weight load of 260 pounds … just in case a tree ended up weighing more than we anticipated. Phew!

A close look at the delicate ornaments, ranging from branches to icicles, that we chose for our Fern Floor trees. Photo by Candie Ward.A close look at the delicate ornaments, ranging from branches to icicles, that we chose for our Fern Floor trees. Photo by Candie Ward.

Come September, a thought occurred to us. How were these trees going to be able to stand up straight and lit while in a rounded tree stand bottom? We called Kenny Stapleford and Joe Cornette in the carpentry shop to ask if they could build us a simple 2 x 4 frame that the trees could rest on while they were being lit. They did … and went a step further, by attaching that frame to a pallet, so now the trees could be transported from the lighting area to the Fern Floor and decorated all while on the pallet. Genius!

The trees arrived on November 5. It was pouring and cold but they all needed to be cut to their appropriate heights and placed in the stands. We were edging closer to the moment of truth. Dave appeared with all the hardware for the stand rigging and got right to work, and as soon as he finished his first one, lights started going on. This year the lighting crew lit more than 170 trees in a matter of weeks, and to ensure that the displays were cohesive, two people were responsible for the lighting of the 17 Fern Floor trees.

We had to attach all the extension cords to the frames so the trees could be plugged in. It took 469 feet of low voltage wire to provide the electricity needed to power these trees. Of course, the collar heights played with the actual cable lengths so we had to do some quick math to ensure that the trees were still going to hang at the correct levels. Installation time is very limited once we get to the Sunday before the start of the Christmas season, so every little detail had to be checked and rechecked.

Sunday night arrived. Longwood was a flurry of activity and our nerves were high. We had trees and ornaments labeled and crated, and plenty of supplies on standby. The goal for the night was to get four trees decorated so the following morning the arborists could set up the rigging and hoist those four trees into the rafters. We were able to get the four decorated by 10:00 pm, and as a bonus we were able to get a couple more started, with the hope that Monday morning we would be able to decorate as many as we could and get at least one triangle basket frame up in the air.

We started at 5:30 am Monday morning, with the arborists, electricians, metal shop, and horticulture team, as well as with additional decorating help from Longwood’s Education, Purchasing, and Archives staff. The hours went by fast but by dinner time we were ready to send the first triangle up. Once that triangle was up we all were able to breathe a sigh of relief … this was really going to work and we were already ahead of the decorating schedule. By late Tuesday afternoon we knew that we could get the hexagon up by the day’s end if we really worked at it.

A look from below at the decorated trees while standing on the Fern Floor, soaring as high as our spirits during installation. Photo by Wendy Gentry.A look from below at the decorated trees while standing on the Fern Floor, soaring as high as our spirits during installation. Photo by Wendy Gentry.

We called for an electrician. Once they were all up in the air they needed to be plugged in on the catwalk that runs the entire length of the Fern Floor. With the electrician in place we were able to get the hexagon to the ceiling and plug in all the trees. All the lights came on when they were plugged in … phew! I have never, in my 15 years of Christmas at Longwood, seen a group of people so excited to see a project come together. We ran from vantage point to vantage point to see how it looked from every angle. Lots of hugs and high fives later we all decided we should go home and wrap up all of our loose ends on Wednesday.

The moment all of the lights came on was one of complete excitement and elation. Photo by Wendy Gentry.The moment all of the lights came on was one of complete excitement and elation. Photo by Wendy Gentry.

Wednesday morning started early too but no one seemed to mind. Once the floor was clean, using a ladder and special water wand made by Dave, we were able to give the trees their first official watering of the season.

Just like that, the Fern Floor floating forest was complete. And as we were finishing up, all of our phones buzzed with a new meeting request for the Christmas 2019 brainstorming session. The magic begins again.

The floating trees reflect beautifully on the flooded Fern Floor, in all their Christmas display glory. Photo by Hank Davis.The floating trees reflect beautifully on the flooded Fern Floor, in all their Christmas display glory. Photo by Hank Davis.

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