The Withering – Massachusetts Horticultural Society – Elm Bank – New England Spring Flower Show – Mass Hort
Nothing about the 137th annual New England Spring Flower Show suggested it would be the last. The very idea would have been preposterous. As the world’s longest-running flower show, it had for decades been a rite of spring, as eagerly anticipated as Marathon Monday or Opening Day at Fenway.
To prepare for the show, set for March 2008, nurseries, landscaping companies, and amateur gardeners had toiled in their greenhouses for months, forcing masses of azaleas, lilies, forsythia, tulips—just about anything that flowered in New England—into bloom. On the cold concrete floor of the Bayside Exposition Center, they took those plants and created five acres of ornate gardens. As usual, the preview party was a highlight of the city’s social calendar, a celebration at which VIPs like Governor Deval Patrick clinked cocktail glasses amid the din of a New Orleans jazz band. Over the next eight days, some 100,000 visitors paid $20 for a splendid sneak preview of spring.
The show was a smashing success—at least that’s what the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the venerable organization behind the event, explained to members in its newsletter, where dates for the 2009 show were happily announced. But at Elm Bank, the Mass Hort headquarters nestled in a crook of the Charles River in Wellesley, people knew the truth. And people were panicking.
Once one of Boston’s most revered institutions, on par with the MFA and the BSO (and a half-century older than both), Mass Hort had been quietly suffering from years of lackluster leadership and fiscal turmoil. To come up with the money needed to even get the 2008 show off the ground, Mass Hort had borrowed $800,000 against its dwindling endowment, a move that required the nonprofit to get the attorney general’s signoff. The group’s executive director, Bob Feige, had assured his board that ample revenue and donations would soon be coming in, but by April 2008 the cash still hadn’t materialized. That month, just before Feige took a vacation to Africa, the perplexed board of trustees called in a team of forensic accountants to have a closer look at the books. What they turned up stunned the board: The 2007 show had actually ended up $100,000 in the red. Even worse, Mass Hort was now facing several hundreds of thousands in bills from the 2008 show. Boston’s most storied institution was on the brink of collapse.
If you don’t know where to look, it’s easy to miss the small sign that marks the entrance to Elm Bank. It directs cars down a narrow road that winds through 182 acres of dense woods, to a collection of century-old brick buildings occupied by Mass Hort. Now a state park, Elm Bank takes its name from a row of trees planted at the edge of the Charles River three centuries ago. Long before Mass Hort moved here, though, those elms had rotted and tumbled to the ground.
Mass Hort relocated to Elm Bank in 1996, after an ambitious $4 million renovation of its beautiful Back Bay home, Horticultural Hall, had ultimately led to foreclosure on the 100-year-old building. The organization made the best of the situation, taking a measure of pride in the fact that its new Wellesley property was once the estate of a distinguished member named Benjamin Cheney, who had made his fortune in the late 1800s as a railroad baron and the largest shareholder of American Express.