The Withering – Massachusetts Horticultural Society – Elm Bank – New England Spring Flower Show – Mass Hort
Though Mass Hort inked a sweetheart deal with the state—$1 a year for a 99-year lease—Elm Bank, which had fallen into considerable disrepair, was still a costly proposition. Over the past decade the group has had to spend some $8 million renovating a crumbling Georgian mansion, converting an old gardener’s cottage into a gift shop, restoring a carriage house, and fixing up an Italianate garden designed by the firm of the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Last year, when its grim financial picture came into view, Mass Hort put such improvements on hold. Merchandise was emptied from the gift shop, and the manor house was cordoned off with yellow caution tape on account of infrastructure problems the group couldn’t afford to fix. "We have had to try and retrofit [Elm Bank] and make it work," says Kathleen Thomas, a relatively recent addition to the board of trustees. "If I had been here, I might have suggested that Mass Hort needed to get an empty piece of land."
Of course, any sort of move to the leafy suburbs would have disappointed Mass Hort’s early members—men from the merchant class who founded the Boston Horticultural Society in 1829 so they could have a reprieve from the grit of urban life without actually leaving the city. Industrialists like Nathan Appleton and Francis Cabot Lowell, who owned the world’s largest textile mills, were anxious to prove they had nobler interests than the accumulation of cash. "He who cultivates a garden, and brings to perfection flowers and fruits, cultivates and advances at the same time his own nature," Ezra Weston told fellow members in an 1836 speech. In addition to vegetables, Weston found time to cultivate the country’s largest shipping empire, earning the nickname "King Caesar."
In those early days, the group (soon renamed the Massachusetts Horticultural Society) was a scientific society devoted to developing plants that would thrive in New England. One member introduced the now-ubiquitous Bartlett pear to America. Another grew 22,000 wild grape seedlings at his Concord home before finding the sturdy variety he would name after his town.
Before long, that utilitarian mission evolved into one more concerned with plants as decoration. The country’s first white wisteria, bleeding hearts, and yellow forsythia, carried to Boston on ships returning from the Far East, were planted by members on their burgeoning estates in Chestnut Hill and on the North Shore. In 1845, Mass Hort became the first society of its kind in the world that could afford to build its own headquarters. That structure attracted such attention that a larger, more elaborate hall was quickly erected on Tremont Street, making even more room for new members and the flower competitions they enjoyed.
It was a time when Boston was cementing its reputation as the Athens of America—a prosperous city brimming with intellectual ambition—and the palace that Mass Hort unveiled wouldn’t have been out of place in ancient Greece. Built for the modern-day equivalent of $3.3 million out of white granite and fronted by enormous columns, it was a temple to horticulture, adorned with monumental statues of the agricultural goddesses Ceres, Pomona, and Flora.
Naturally, the club attracted some of history’s most prominent Bostonians. At a single flower show, Daniel Webster spoke about his Marshfield farm, Harvard president Josiah Quincy discussed his gardens, and Ambassador Caleb Cushing, just back from negotiating America’s first trade treaty with China, spoke about the lilies he had seen on his travels. Later, Isabella Stewart Gardner entered her famous roses in competitions. Such was the social imprimatur bestowed by the club that membership alone was enough to grant Boston ladies a substantial line of credit at downtown department stores.