The Withering

By Francis Storrs | Boston Magazine |

Nothing about the 137th annual New England Spring Flower Show suggested it would be the last. The very idea would have been preposterous. As the world’s longest-running flower show, it had for decades been a rite of spring, as eagerly anticipated as Marathon Monday or Opening Day at Fenway.

To prepare for the show, set for March 2008, nurseries, landscaping companies, and amateur gardeners had toiled in their greenhouses for months, forcing masses of azaleas, lilies, forsythia, tulips—just about anything that flowered in New England—into bloom. On the cold concrete floor of the Bayside Exposition Center, they took those plants and created five acres of ornate gardens. As usual, the preview party was a highlight of the city’s social calendar, a celebration at which VIPs like Governor Deval Patrick clinked cocktail glasses amid the din of a New Orleans jazz band. Over the next eight days, some 100,000 visitors paid $20 for a splendid sneak preview of spring.

The show was a smashing success—at least that’s what the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the venerable organization behind the event, explained to members in its newsletter, where dates for the 2009 show were happily announced. But at Elm Bank, the Mass Hort headquarters nestled in a crook of the Charles River in Wellesley, people knew the truth. And people were panicking.

Once one of Boston’s most revered institutions, on par with the MFA and the BSO (and a half-century older than both), Mass Hort had been quietly suffering from years of lackluster leadership and fiscal turmoil. To come up with the money needed to even get the 2008 show off the ground, Mass Hort had borrowed $800,000 against its dwindling endowment, a move that required the nonprofit to get the attorney general’s signoff. The group’s executive director, Bob Feige, had assured his board that ample revenue and donations would soon be coming in, but by April 2008 the cash still hadn’t materialized. That month, just before Feige took a vacation to Africa, the perplexed board of trustees called in a team of forensic accountants to have a closer look at the books. What they turned up stunned the board: The 2007 show had actually ended up $100,000 in the red. Even worse, Mass Hort was now facing several hundreds of thousands in bills from the 2008 show. Boston’s most storied institution was on the brink of collapse.

If you don’t know where to look, it’s easy to miss the small sign that marks the entrance to Elm Bank. It directs cars down a narrow road that winds through 182 acres of dense woods, to a collection of century-old brick buildings occupied by Mass Hort. Now a state park, Elm Bank takes its name from a row of trees planted at the edge of the Charles River three centuries ago. Long before Mass Hort moved here, though, those elms had rotted and tumbled to the ground.

Mass Hort relocated to Elm Bank in 1996, after an ambitious $4 million renovation of its beautiful Back Bay home, Horticultural Hall, had ultimately led to foreclosure on the 100-year-old building. The organization made the best of the situation, taking a measure of pride in the fact that its new Wellesley property was once the estate of a distinguished member named Benjamin Cheney, who had made his fortune in the late 1800s as a railroad baron and the largest shareholder of American Express.

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.

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.”

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. Instead, she’s in the conference room at Elm Bank, sitting beneath the stern faces of presidents from a century ago, who stare down at her from oil paintings.

Madsen, a schoolteacher, was thrust into the presidency a year ago, at the lowest moment in the group’s history. The devastating 2008 financial audit had made the cancellation of the flower show a foregone conclusion, but privately the board was weighing an even more unthinkable option: closing Mass Hort altogether. The president at the time, Boston Federal Reserve general counsel William McDonough, along with Walter Pile, a management consultant who was then treasurer, knew the group owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to creditors, but couldn’t see a way to pay them.

But Madsen was part of a faction that dug in against the idea of shuttering Mass Hort. However long the odds looked, the group felt, they needed to attempt to salvage the organization. “We made the decision to at least have Custer’s Last Stand,” a trustee said at the time. It takes an optimistic sort of person to be a gardener in New England, someone who believes spring will eventually arrive, no matter how terrible the winter. When McDonough, Pile, and another board member stepped down, the remaining members elected Madsen to rebuild Mass Hort from the ruins.

In the year since the flower show’s collapse, Madsen has come to believe that the failure might somehow be a good thing for Mass Hort. “It forced us to think out of the box,” she says. “It got us thinking about what is essential and how you get your message across, looking at different venues, looking at different ways of engaging the public. All of them are things, in a way, that are long overdue.”

Madsen is too polite to say it, but she knows many of her predecessors were awful at reconciling their ambitions with their capabilities. Long before she was elected board president, Mass Hort was straining under the weight of a vastly expanded mission. In a nod to its scientific roots, it ran a trial garden on its grounds, where seed companies tested their products in New England’s climate. Then there was the flower show, which cost $2 million to stage each year, plus a program to educate kids on gardening and a multimillion-dollar library that needed conserving. That’s to say nothing of the money pit the Elm Bank property has become.

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 exposĂ© 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.”


One evening late last fall,
Mass Hort held a party celebrating its first fundraiser since its near-collapse. The group had spent more than a year on a kind of life support, and on this night the mood was surprisingly hopeful. More than two dozen artificial Christmas trees were arranged around the center of Elm Bank’s renovated carriage house, each one bought and decorated by a donor for a raffle. “When I heard they were fake trees, I almost vetoed it,” Madsen says with a smile. “But there are fire codes.”

There’s reason to be upbeat: For the first time in a long while, Madsen is happy to report, the group closed its fiscal year without losing money. Mass Hort still has some outstanding debt, but some attorneys and accountants are volunteering their time to get that settled. Madsen has also lined up a donor to pay the salary of a new executive director to finally replace Feige, a hire the board will be vetting more carefully this time.

This spring the New England Spring Flower Show will return to Boston—but it won’t be staged by Mass Hort. Instead, a for-profit company called the Paragon Group, which also puts on the annual auto show, will host it at the Seaport World Trade Center. Recognizing the possible public relations benefit of allowing Mass Hort to keep its hand in the event, Paragon will pay the society to organize a flower-arranging competition and install an exhibition garden.

These, Madsen realizes, are baby steps. But, like the Christmas tree raffle, they’re the kinds of modest successes on which the group can build a future. “Things change,” says Hilda Morrill, a Mass Hort member who had helped set up the flower show for 35 years, “and there is nothing we can do about it.” Even Madsen seems to holds out little hope that Mass Hort will again stage an extravagant flower show the way it used to. She’s a gardener foremost, and she knows that even the most beloved plants eventually die, no matter how hard you work to save them. At times like those, a good gardener has the sense to try something new.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/12/the-withering-massachusetts-horticultural-society/