The Withering – Massachusetts Horticultural Society – Elm Bank – New England Spring Flower Show – Mass Hort

By Francis Storrs | Boston Magazine |

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.

  • Neal

    Perhaps it’s because the facts didn’t fit the writer’s preconceived story line, but the article leaves out two incontrovertible pieces of present-day reality. First, the gardens at Elm Bank are stunning and have never looked better. Second, while the ‘Garden Under Glass’ never came to fruition, MassHort gave Boston something infinitely better and more ecologically sound: the five-acre Gardens on the Greenway, easily the most beautiful and colorful piece of that otherwise uninspiring park. MassHort bore the entire expense of the garden. They cost the taxpayers nothing and were built entirely by enthusiastic volunteers coordinated by MassHort. (Incredibly, the Greenway Conservancy wants to level the garden to make room for a skating rink and farmers’ market because they’re ‘too expensive to maintain’.)

  • Neal

    Regarding the 2010 Flower Show, what the writer characterizes as “a flower-arranging competition and … an exhibition garden” quaintly understates MassHort’s role at the 2010 Boston Flower & Garden Show. “Blooms!” – MassHort’s ‘flower show within the flower show’ – will occupy 12,000 square feet of space and will comprise two distinct floral competitions, Ikebana displays, Plant Society displays, and a large Amateur Horticulture competition. In addition, MassHort will have three display gardens on the exhibit floor and will provide a day-long series of talks on ‘Gardening Essentials’. The writer seemed more fascinated in quoting from 150-year-old speeches than in providing an accurate picture of MassHort today.

  • Art
  • Art

    MassHort withering? Hardly. You ignored mentioning MassHorts volunteers efforts that transformed the former rat-infested underbelly of the Expressway into the spectacular Greenway Gardens, the Greenways only true horticultural masterpiece.

    I was one of 300 volunteers who labored from April to June, 2008, to plant 9,000 trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, and our pride is unabashed! It cost the city and state nothing — the plants and materials used were donated by MassHort and generous local benefactors.

    Now, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy plans to destroy the newly re-named Dewey Square Gardens and install a skating rink, contending the gardens are too expensive to maintain, despite MassHorts willingness to maintain it cost-free. This plan outrages abutting residents and workers who endured the Expressway for decades and the Big Dig for another, only to enjoy the new parkland for two years before the Conservancy destroys it. Is this sane?

    A benefactor of

  • Joyce

    Theres a new, volunteer-driven MassHort that the article ignored. These volunteers and I count myself among them bring a new culture with a can-do attitude. This new culture was first seen last March when MassHort staged a free transitional show called BLOOMS! in downtown Boston. Blooms! attracted over 5,000 people over three days, with a longer satellite show at the Chestnut Hill Mall. Volunteers who believe in MassHorts mission made it happen and, together with trustees, overseers and a small staff, theyre restoring MassHort as one of the foremost leaders in horticultural education.

    The Festival of Trees attracted several thousand people during its two-week run in November and December, and was so popular (mostly via word of mouth) and financially successful that planning for the 2010 Festival of Trees are already in the works. BLOOMS! 2010 at the Boston Flower and Garden Show is another all-volunteer effort that will showcase that can-do attitude. I invi

  • betsy

    I hope people read far enough to realize that Mass Hort has finished this past fiscal year in the black – a major accomplishment for any non-profit this year. With the support of countless volunteers and contributors, the gardens have been beautiful, and new programs have garnered great interest and support. Were not talking about dead flowers, were talking about rebirth. Judicious pruning can be really beneficial for any plant or institution.

  • John

    As Mass Hort has repeatedly faltered over the last 30 years, the Worcester County Horticultural Society, headquartered at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston MA, (30 miles west of Elm Bank) has succeeded. Part of this success is due to more than $3.5 million in support from Boston based foundations and individuals. Some people know a good investment when they see it. Perhaps the two organizations should become one.

  • Dahlia

    As a sideline observer of MassHort for the last 20 years, and as someone who has known both employees and board members, I’d say this was a fair article that lays out the facts, hard as it is for some of the above commentators to accept them.

    I truly want MassHort to succeed–it is (or was) a venerable institution with a storied past, as this article alludes to, but it has suffered from mismanagement for so long, I’m just not sure what the cure is. With the seemingly never-ending scandals, it is hard to imagine how they can rebuild their credibility.

    An engaged board with a solid mission is certainly a good start, but all options should be considered–including closure–however difficult it may be.

  • Robert

    Trustees who seem to be running MassHort made/make countless uninformed decisions and poor choices resulting in the potpourri of problems they now face. Its a group of well meaning, but inexperienced Boston area patricians who believe they can fix this working disaster in public relations with a rag-tag group of well-intentioned volunteers looking for a horticultural promised land.

    Trustees are trustees to support professional staff — who have nonprofit management experience– and FUND RAISE. Nothing less, nothing more. What is the Society’s concrete, long-range plan for the future? How have they redefined themselves? What is their new mission, given the old paradigm wasnt successful?

    I’m not really sure what qualifications Ms. Madsen has, but it’s clear she should not be managing a nonprofit institution, especially given their grave situation. This, I would say, is the very essence of their problem.

  • Susan

    Those of you that wish to preserve all the hardwork of the MHS volunteers might want to join this Facebook page ‘Save Boston’s Greenway Gardens’

  • denise

    MassHort, like many organizations needs strong leadership and devoted members and one hopes that the recent changes will be continue to be fruitful. This adolescent profile tries to be journalism, but is really only local–and mean-spirited–melodrama. Example: “Betsy Ridge Madsen looks as if she’d rather be someplace else. Like maybe Beacon Hill, where she is used to spending considerable time tending her garden and arranging the flowers at the Church of the Advent. But these days, Mass Hort’s board president has little time for such modest acts of beautification.” No editor should have signed off on this and many other sentences.

  • Marha

    Like so many articles in your magazine, this one is slanted and unfair. One doesn’t need to even read the article – only to look at the “clever” black and white image at the beginning to know where it is going. What a shame your magazine continues to produce such reporting which in no way benefits or enlightens people in this great city. The narrow focus and vindictive tone discredit even the things that are accurate in the article. You should do a better job.

  • Betty

    You would need a forensic accountant to find that MassHort spent $8,000,000 on building renovations in Elm Bank. For that kind of money, they could have rebuilt the mansion, rotting away, n its entirety.Who are they kidding? Their pay-nothing lease is dependent on putting in $5,000,000; hence, the exaggerated figure. Unfortunately, only the citizenry pays the real price.

  • Nancy

    RE: Neal’s Dec 31 post

    Lately some misinformation has surfaced about the Conservancys plans for Dewey Square Parks, the section of the Greenway that Mass Hort generously helped to plant in summer 08 as an interim installation. For instance, Conservancy ideas recommending more active programming like the BPM farmers market and ice skating are reserved, and always have been, for the plaza, not the green spaces from Oliver to Congress Streets. In response, we have created a blog and invite you to read more about the need to fix significant compaction, drainage, irrigation and soil quality issues on these parcels. Further info and schedules of public meetings are available on the Conservancy website http://www.rosekennedygreenway.org/about-the-conservancy/public-meeting-schedule.htm and our blog http://blog.rosekennedygreenway.org/2010/01/14/dewey-square-parksfort-point-channel-parks-update/. – Nancy Brennan

  • whitemanzen

    Bob Fiegh now works at Ablitt Scofield assisting LPS foreclosure on properties the Banks know they have no right to foreclose on.