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Where the Tree Goes Next

By Karen HudesJul 11 2018

Every year, thousands gather in Rockefeller Plaza to watch the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, while thousands more stream by to witness its towering presence in the weeks leading up to (and following) Christmas—but what many may not realize is that the magic doesn’t end once the Tree is taken down. Since 2007, the lumber of each tree has been donated to Habitat for Humanity International.

Last year we spoke with Rowena Sara, Habitat for Humanity's senior director of public relations and global communications strategy, who filled us in on what happens to the Tree once it comes down for the season.

Front & Center: This is the ninth year that lumber from the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree will be donated Habitat for Humanity. How did your relationship with Rock Center begin?

Rowena Sara: In September 2005, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, NBC, Warner Music and Tishman Speyer partnered with our organization to transform Rockefeller Plaza into Humanity Plaza. Over one week, employees from all three companies—along with more than 1,000 volunteers—helped build the frames for 45 houses that were then shipped down to families affected by the hurricane. Inspired by that effort, Tishman Speyer decided in 2007 to continue their support of Habitat’s mission by donating the annual Christmas Tree.

What happens each year after the Christmas Tree is taken down?

In the Plaza, the tree is cut into large pieces, which are then transported to a mill in New Jersey that does the initial rough sawing. Those pieces are then brought to a landscaping company where they're dried in a kiln and then milled and planed to get them straight and smooth. Only 2x4 and 2x6 beams are made. The finished beams are then stamped, shrink-wrapped and shipped to the Habitat for Humanity affiliate chosen to receive the lumber. The amount of lumber varies based on the size of the tree.

The tree is usually a Norway spruce. Is that a particularly good wood to build with?

Norway spruce lumber is usually creamy white in color and fine-grained. It’s flexible and durable, which makes it ideal for blocking (the filling, spacing, joining or reinforcing of frames), flooring, furniture and cabinetry. It is a softer wood, though, so it’s not intended for load-bearing walls.

The 2014 tree went to Philadelphia, the 2013 tree to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and previous trees have been used in the construction of homes in other cities around the country. Can you tell us a little more about how Habitat chooses where the lumber goes and for what project?

In most cases, the lumber goes back to a Habitat affiliate in the state from which the tree was donated. One exception was the 2007 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, which originated in Shelton, Connecticut, but was used to build a new home in Pascagoula, Mississippi, with a family that remained displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Once an affiliate is chosen, they decide how to use the lumber. In the past, it’s been used for either the construction of a single home or several. Much of that selection process has to do with timing. For instance, the Morris (New Jersey) Habitat for Humanity chose to use the wood in several different homes in their area that were scheduled to be built—and as luck would have it, two were in the same town as where the tree originally came from. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh (New York) chose to use theirs in a house that was in active construction on a once-blighted block in that city. They had already built 22 other homes in that area and wanted to commemorate the honor of receiving the lumber from the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree by making it a permanent part of Newburgh's newest neighborhood. This past year, Philadelphia used the 2014 tree to build the framework of five different homes in the city.

The 2013 tree has had an especially unique journey. That tree was sent to Habitat for Humanity Coastal Fairfield County, whose staff there decided they wanted as many people as possible to share in the joy of knowing that a part of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree was in their home. So they’ve been placing a few beams from that one tree into every home that’s been built since—and they still have more to share two years later!

The families must be thrilled to have it. Do you know where in the homes the lumber was used?

It varies from site to site, but it’s been used to block and frame interior and exterior walls, as well as for cabinetry, shelving and bathroom accessories. Some have made a point to incorporate pieces into parts of the home where it can be seen by the family every day.

Update: The Associated Press recently looked at the homes in Newburgh, NY, that were built with wood from the 2016 Rockefeller Christmas Tree donated to Habitat for Humanity. The video shows the Tree being cut into lumber in the Plaza, the distinctive stamp identifying it on the planks, and the construction process for one of the houses on "Rockefeller Row," and highlights the family that will soon make it a home. Expect an announcement soon from Habitat about the destination for the 2017 Tree, which comes down after January 7.

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