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  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."