Reading the objections of the River Farm neighbors now for more than two weeks in the media, and in my email daily, one thing is clear: We do not have the same primary concern. They are mainly focused on accessing River Farm and keeping the land undeveloped, whereas my focus is on saving the 98-year-old organization that outright owns the private deeded land: the American Horticultural Society.
Why did Enid Haupt’s foundation buy this property? Walter Annenberg, Enid’s only brother, was aware that the Russians might buy the property; knowing his sister had a passion for taking public land and making lovely gardens, and the fit and the price tag were doable, they eliminated a potentially embarrassing diplomatic headache.
Haupt’s charitable new owners were a bunch of green intellectuals. In 1973, AHS had already been in business for 48 years. Haupt, who was on the AHS board, certainly envisioned a horticultural showplace much like her gardens a few miles away at the Smithsonian. Her foundation’s D.C. green gifts were plentiful.
AHS’s well-heeled United Kingdom cousin, the Royal Horticultural Society, has more than 414,000 members. While AHS currently has 22,000 members, the Royal Horticultural Society has a century head start. But some of us are believers that the AHS could become the green brand that showcases what its name implies – America’s face of horticulture. That wonderful land could be used to showcase green innovation and 21st century horticulture. There are many possibilities.
The irony is the American Public Gardens Association should be paying AHS, not the other way around. As a trade organization, their job is to feature its members who elevate horticulture as their main business.
So my version of saving the farm means AHS continues at River Farm with a new board and a new director who has proven business savvy. The board has 100% control of the who and what, spelled out in their bylaws. If they reverse their last motion and put a stay of execution for at least two years, there is hope.
I would structure programs that meet the endowment’s donors’ checklist of operating capability. And please, eliminate the whole wedding/event venue focus. Or, license that portion of the business so staff hired for program development can do the job and not worry about caterers.
AHS needs to become part of the digital age on a global scale, so their grassy meadow is waving to all across the globe. Otherwise, they remain a local operation with the misleading geotag “American.” I am an optimist, so please AHS Board, come to your senses.
The writer is president of National Capital Area Garden Clubs, Inc., which includes 63 garden clubs in the DMV, with 2,200 members.