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

There’s no greater example of Mass Hort’s financial incompetence than the ill-conceived undertaking dreamed up for the Greenway. At one point estimated to cost $100 million, the project was to feature a nine-story solarium where Bostonians could visit lush gardens in the middle of winter, a kind of year-round downtown flower show. John Peterson, hired as director in 1992, pursued the so-called Garden Under Glass project with single-minded passion. A botanist who had helped build a similar multimillion-dollar project in Columbus, Ohio, Peterson was no great fundraiser. Rather than chasing after donors, he settled on another plan to raise money: He would unload nearly $5.5 million worth of books from the group’s library. In response, a half-dozen board members resigned, saying the organization was trying to take on too much. "This is destruction through incompetence," said former treasurer Frederick Good III. He pointed out that many of the books would be torn apart for their handcolored plates, which would then be sold individually. "This is the final deflowering of the Mass Hort." When Good encouraged the attorney general’s office to look into the group’s finances, he was promptly sued by Mass Hort for breach of fiduciary duty. (The case was ultimately thrown out by a judge who said Good was merely acting in the organization’s best interest.)

After Peterson was pressured to step down in 2003, Mass Hort finally admitted it would not be able to build its Garden Under Glass. Despite his big ambitions, Peterson had raised only a million or two for the project.

After an exhaustive search, Peterson’s replacement lasted less than three years at Elm Bank. To fill that vacancy, the board made the decision to hire an entrepreneur named Bob Feige at a $200,000 salary. It was a move that still seems to mystify some board members. "I’m not really sure [why we hired him]. He just sort of appeared," says Thomas. "Everybody was happy that somebody was happy to step up to the plate, which was probably one of our biggest downfalls."

When board members talk about what caused the most damage to Mass Hort’s reputation, they point to Feige’s brief tenure. Two months before what would be the final flower show, board members learned that, among other red flags they had failed to discover, Feige had spent three nights in jail in 2007 for failing to pay the employees of one of his old companies. It was a revelation that came, embarrassingly, not from the board’s due diligence but from the front page of the Globe‘s business section. Steve Bailey, the reporter who wrote the story, addressed his exposé to would-be donors. "Before you write a check, read on," he wrote, before noting that multiple liens had been placed on Feige’s home and that he’d been accused of mishandling retirement funds.

Mass Hort trustees now claim that whatever Feige’s own financial problems, he’d advised them the group was on strong-enough financial footing to stage the 2008 flower show, and that Mass Hort could borrow $800,000 against its endowment because it would make the money back. After the forensic accountants determined the show had been losing money, the trustees claimed Feige had been keeping them in the dark. For his part, Feige says he provided the board with accurate information and it signed off on every financial decision. He believes he has been used as a scapegoat for problems that long preceded his tenure. "I took a shot at trying to fix the place, I seriously did," he says. "You know, if you’re a trustee and you don’t know what’s going on [with the finances], you’re a fundamentally incompetent trustee."

"I think people just weren’t paying attention," says Bruce Smith, current board treasurer. "They had a [2007] flower show which did poorly and they didn’t pay attention enough to say, ‘My God, we didn’t make any money.’ So they turned around and did it a second year and it just wiped out every penny they had. Then all hell broke loose."

ADVERTISMENT

  • 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.