Woodland Park is home to many art traditions, including the annual dance concert Ballet Under the Stars, which begins Thursday, but it soon might be curtains for the towering 250-year-old red oak tree around which the park's stage is built.
The tree near the park's border with Kentucky Avenue has a rich recent history. It was a part of the set of Shakespeare in the Park's first productions more than 30 years ago. Thousands of people have strolled past it while visiting the Woodland Art Fair, and weddings have been held beneath its canopy.
"We have, sort of, built a brand and show around the tree," said Amber Luallen, cultural arts director at Lexington's Division of Parks and Recreation, which co-presents cultural activities in the park. "There are a lot of trees in the park, but that tree was so beautiful. It was like another dancer."
The tree has been there since before the park was a park. It probably was part of a farm called The Woodlands, owned by a son-in-law of statesman Henry Clay. In the 1880s, that land was converted to what is now Woodland Park.
In recent years, the tree has suffered substantial weather damage and rot.
An ice storm in 2003 damaged the tree and many others in the park. The oak continued to stand tall, but after a lightning strike a few years ago, Parks and Recreation officials called in an arborist.
City arborist technician John Saylor was assigned to assess whether the tree posed a potential safety hazard.
"I went to see how sound it was, as it had large dead branches that needed to be removed, and had heart rot in a crack," he said, referring to a fungus that causes decay in a tree's center.
The crown of the tree has been removed. All that remains of the 100-foot-tall tree is the trunk and a few of the lower branches.
The tree in its current state poses no hazard to Ballet Under the Stars' dancers or patrons or park visitors, city officials said.
Saylor said he made his original assessment without equipment needed to determine whether the tree should stay or go.
"There is a chance the tree could stay, but it depends on the final assessment using the right equipment," he said.
Saylor said he needed a resistograph, an electronic drilling instrument that inserts a probe into a tree to test for wood decay and digitally records findings.
He will return to the tree with a resistograph after Ballet Under the Stars finishes on Sunday.
"I don't want to see them remove any tree, but the park has to be sure to make it safe," Saylor said.
The final decision as to whether the tree will stay or go is left to Parks and Recreation, which manages Woodland Park.
Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Gray's office, said no decision has been made about the tree; that will be done only after the arborists make their final assessment.
One thing is for sure: The tree will remain at least until after the Woodland Art Fair in mid-August.
The tree holds memories for those who know it.
"It was the 'Giving Tree' for us: protecting us from rain, shading us from the summer sun," Becky Smith wrote in an email. She is a former artistic director of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, a successor to Shakespeare in the Park.
The theater festival was in Woodland Park for 12 of its first 14 seasons before moving to the Arboretum in 1996.
"I remember one summer we were sitting back from the stage," debating whether it was positioned correctly, she said. "Finally, I said, 'Wait, the tree is telling us, it's OK.' We all looked up: There was a branch that arched over, touching another. It was an 'OK' sign.
"We called it the 'OK Tree' from then on."
"It's a proud tree," she said.
Norbe Risco, artistic director of Kentucky Ballet Theatre, which presents Ballet Under the Stars with Lexington Ballet, said, "The tree has always been an icon and a special accent to the show."
He has performed with the tree as a backdrop since 1997.
"I wish there could be a fountain or monument in remembrance of the tree," he said.
Each night of Ballet Under the Stars, city officials and residents will offer a few words about the tree in honor of its time in the park.
IF YOU GO
Ballet Under the Stars
What: 24th annual outdoor dance concert featuring Kentucky Ballet Theatre and Lexington Ballet, presented by the companies and the Lexington Division of Parks and Recreation
When: Aug. 1-4. Pre-show at 8 p.m., main curtain at 9.
Where: Woodland Park stage, off Kentucky Ave.
Admission: $5 at the gate
Learn more: Lexingtonky.gov