Despite Mass Hort’s popularity, though, a perception took hold that it was an elitist club, a place where Brahmins spent long afternoons debating the merits of different rhododendron varieties. When the board set out to build yet another Horticultural Hall at the turn of the 20th century—its third in 55 years, and the largest and most expensive yet—a contingent of members raised an alarm. Mass Hort was getting carried away. If they were going to build yet another hall, one member cautioned, they might as well buy a grave and bury themselves in it.
Ignoring the warnings, Mass Hort built a massive headquarters across from the new Symphony Hall. Trustees installed an expansive wood-paneled library to house thousands of volumes of journals and rare books, some dating back to the 15th century—a horticultural collection well on its way to becoming the most comprehensive in the Western Hemisphere. When it opened in 1901, Horticultural Hall was lauded as the finest building of its kind in America.
It was also extraordinarily expensive to maintain, thanks to its enormous windows and soaring ceilings, and the upkeep gradually took a toll. Things started looking untenable by the 1970s, a decade when membership and donations began to decline, and by 1981, Mass Hort’s cash flow had ebbed to the point where the group decided to sell off its journal, Horticulture, which it had published for almost 60 years, plus $750,000 worth of rare books.
The infusion of money temporarily sustained Mass Hort, but it had to put up its deed as collateral for $4 million in renovations to Horticultural Hall. There was even talk that the society might lose the building, though the director squelched those rumors. In July 1991, director Richard Daley proclaimed the odds of that happening were “equal to the building being torn down by an earthquake.” Five months later, the foreclosed building was auctioned to the Christian Science Church for $1.6 million, a fire sale price. Daley resigned. (The building is now rented as office space; tenants include Boston magazine.)
For some, the subsequent move to Wellesley sent the wrong message to the public at the worst possible time. “[Mass Hort] is not about Wellesley garden clubs, it’s about being in the city,” says Walter Pile, a former Mass Hort president. “I think moving out of the city reinforced the stereotypes of snobs and elitism, which were really never true.”
Tucked away at Elm Bank, Mass Hort saw its membership dwindle further; cash was in short supply. “Arguably, few nonprofits in New England have been as challenged by the shifting priorities of our traditional philanthropic constituencies,” then-president William McDonough wrote to members at one point. Used to getting regular checks from old-money scions, Mass Hort never really learned the most basic skill in running a modern nonprofit: asking for money. The group proved no better at attracting new members. “You have to cultivate your donors and not just expect that the same old money is going to give all the time,” says trustee Kathleen Thomas. “The old money—not to sound bad or anything—but a lot of them are dead.”