Beloved Garden At Center Of Children’s Hospital Building Dispute

BOSTON — Anyone who has spent time in Boston’s Longwood medical area knows it is busy and loud.

Noise from traffic, construction and sirens dominates this neighborhood of some of the nation’s premier hospitals — but not in one spot tucked among the buildings of Boston Children’s Hospital.

The space many refer to as an oasis is called Prouty Garden, a half acre of grass, mature trees, flowers and fountains. It’s been a sanctuary for stressed families, sick children and hospital staff since 1956, when a patron created and endowed it. A Scientific American article last year called it “one of the most successful hospital gardens in the country.” That same article quotes research showing the benefits of hospital gardens in reducing anxiety, pain and blood pressure.

But now, citing a desperate need to expand, Children’s Hospital has developed plans to build a 10-story, 500,000-square-foot building on the site of the garden. The decision is not final. But many patients’ families are distraught.

“My daughter was treated here for 3 1/2 years for acute myeloid leukemia. And this was her one respite — this place,” says Beecher Grogan, of Amesbury, while sitting near Prouty Garden’s 65-foot dawn redwood tree. She says before her 12-year-old daughter, Lucy, died in 2006, Prouty Garden was the one place Lucy could come and forget about illness for a little while.

“To come out here and be able to sit in nature with the tree, climb all around the roots of that tree, sit by the fountain, we’d have picnics under this tree,” Grogan recalls. “This was our one place to come and feel slightly normal for her. And to be able to come out and just be a part of nature again, for her, was so healing and so critical.”

Grogan is among some 6,000 people who’ve signed an online petition to keep the garden as it is.

Schuyler Amick, 23, of Ashby, also signed the petition. She says it would be “heartbreaking” not to have Prouty Garden, visits to which helped her get through her daughter Amber’s hospital stays.

“I mean, for how busy the hospital is, you always felt like you had your own space in the garden. You weren’t, like, overcrowded,” Amick explains. “And it was just a great place to relax and just regroup as a parent.”

Amick chose Prouty Garden as the place to hold her 3-year-old as she died in May. Many parents do the same, according to hospital staff members and comments on the petition. Several staffers were reluctant to publicly discuss their concerns about the possible removal of the garden.

Children’s administrators say they know this is emotional ground.

“We’ve looked at 18 alternative locations very, very carefully over five years. And the other ones all have a fatal flaw to them,” explains Charles Weinstein, Boston Children’s Hospital’s vice president for real estate planning and development.

In his office, amid stacks of plans and drawings, Weinstein explains why the hospital must expand. Most importantly, he says, Children’s needs to overhaul its antiquated neonatal intensive care unit and replace 41 double-patient rooms with 82 single-bed rooms.

“It’s no longer the state of the art in pediatrics to have double-bedded rooms,” he says. “So we’re trying to get to an all single-room environment. There’s no way we can accomplish that without building another building.”

Artist’s rendering of the proposed new clinical building and green space on the site of the current Prouty Garden at Boston Children’s Hospital

Artist’s rendering of the proposed new clinical building and green space on the site of the current Prouty Garden at Boston Children’s Hospital

Weinstein points out that if these expansion plans go forward, there will be a smaller garden near the current Prouty Garden site, and an increase in the overall square footage of green space. Children’s surgeon Dr. Steven Fishman says this proposal might mean more access to green space, especially during New England winters and for some children who can’t go outdoors.

“The Prouty Garden is just going to move over to make space for the new building, and the green space will be enhanced,” Fishman says. “And there’ll be green spaces added to the building, both inside and outside for all of us to enjoy, and particularly for the patients who don’t have access to the outside.”

But for some, a smattering of smaller garden spaces, many of them indoors and on rooftops, is not enough.

“They’re kind of sterile in a way. They don’t have real earth and roots and sky and birds and rain. It’s very nice, but those should just augment the garden. They cannot be a replacement,” says Anne Gamble. She volunteered at Children’s Hospital for 30 years, is married to a retired Children’s cardiologist who also opposes the removal of Prouty Garden, and is now organizing the online petition to preserve it.

Gamble says Brookline novelist Olive Prouty, who endowed the garden, lost two children and wrote about her vision of what the garden should be. Gamble reads:

A haven for patients, families, and staff, for as long as Children’s Hospital has patients, families, and staff to enjoy it.

Prouty did not make those wishes legally binding, according to Gamble and hospital administrators. But a placard in the garden states that she “insisted on perpetually maintaining this location” as such.

Although some Prouty descendants signed the online petition, Prouty’s grandson, Mason Smith, did not. He runs the foundation that oversees the $45,000-a-year upkeep of the garden. Smith thinks his grandmother would have carefully considered the hospital’s proposal.

“I think she was a smart enough woman to know things changed,” Smith reflects. “You don’t build anything forever. I probably take a more architect-like view of saying, ‘How can we retain the qualities that she was interested in, even if it requires a different form?’ ”

Smith is in a tough spot. He happens to be an architect who designed the hospital’s main building while heading the firm Shepley Bulfinch — the firm that’s designing the proposed new building.

He’s had several meetings with Children’s administrators about the proposed construction and says if he doesn’t like the final plans, his foundation might reconsider its financial support for a garden at the hospital.

Beecher Grogan knows that change is inevitable. But she wonders if there is a way for the hospital to grow other than building on the land where she has some of the last memories of her daughter.

“I really love this place. I think it’s critical for the health and healing of children,” Grogan says. “But, you know, am I going to chain myself to [Prouty's redwood] tree? I don’t know. Might have to.”

Children’s Hospital administrators say they are applying for permits while awaiting a decision from their board of trustees on whether to proceed.

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  • ou812

    I stayed at Children’s Hospital in 1985 at age 11 during parts of my treatment for cancer. My good memories of that time are few and far between; the time I spent in the Prouty Garden was one of them. While it didn’t save my life, it provided a much-needed break from the sterile hospital environment.

  • Barb

    Maybe one of the reasons that makes Children’s Hospital what it is, is because of having a Prouty Garden and all the therapeutic benefits that it brings mixing in with modern medical technology. Let’s retain some of that balance here.

  • Children’s Doc

    Trashing the Garden and giving green “viewing spaces”, many that cannot actually be entered, and others that seem more like a green closet is akin to stealing the Mona Lisa and replacing it a dozen Thomas Kincades, dynamiting the Bamyam Buddas, or burning the Library at Alexandria. This garden was designed by the Olmstead Firm and is a stellar example of a healing garden – no self-respecting architect in Boston should even think of being associated with its destruction.

    These Administration people should be ashamed of themselves, but sadly they are more interested in the bonuses they will collect by increasing charges and billings.

    Destroying the Garden is a fatal flaw and that fact alone should stop this ill-begotten plan in its tracks.

  • Loren

    Thank you, WBUR, for this broadcast. The only chance of preservation this beloved garden has, is public awareness. Many hospital staff, who want to preserve the hospital’s mission as devotion to children’s health and well-being, rather than support the mission creep towards devotion to the bottom line, are afraid to speak out.

  • maraith

    “Fatal flaw” in other options? I’d say there’s a fatal law in this option also!

  • Alice Carmel

    What about relocating the research labs in the Enders Bldg to Brookline Village or Blackfan Street? Clinical space and patient rooms are less separable from the main building and its services than research labs are.

    • farfallagialla

      I agree that the research laboratories could be elsewhere than right on campus. I have just moved to an office location that overlooks the Prouty Garden and as I look down from the 10th floor it is a beautiful view.

  • Mary

    I’ll be at the redwood tree with Beecher Grogan!

  • Erik Owens

    My son spent many months inpatient at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) over the past few years, and thousands of hours in their outpatient clinics. As someone who knows and loves the institution, I firmly believe it would be a big mistake to build over the garden. The Prouty Garden is an historic and sacred space that has provided peace, healing and hope for countless children and their families for nearly sixty years. As many commenters have said, it offers a sheltered, quiet spot for reflection and companionship amidst the often frenetic pace of the hospital. Building over the garden would be an irrevocable mistake, even if new green spaces were scattered about the roofs and decks of the new building. You can’t rebuild something special like this on a roof deck or inside a “winter garden”; just visit the new Dana Farber building’s winter garden with its digital bird sounds for comparison.

    When the issue is framed simply as “kids vs. trees,” as some below have done, there is no choice to be made. But of course the reality is that there are many different ways to expand even the space-constrained Longwood campus; BCH exec Weinstein said they reviewed 18 different plans, each one with costs and benefits. The problem is that they don’t see destroying the Prouty as a large enough cost — as a “fatal flaw.”

    I support the institution’s drive to remain the best pediatric hospital in the world, and thus the imperative for constant upgrades and expansion. But destroying this very special space when it’s possible to build around it — that would be an utter shame.

  • jmgs

    This valuable space is certainly not the only option Children’s has to expand – there must be options that do not involve taking this treasured garden away. Losing Prouty Garden should be a last resort.

  • carl

    Don’t forget the Waltham facility, where expansion is possible.According to a Boston.com report last Nov. Charles Weinstein said” We have 300,000 SF and offer the full range of services that are also offered at our Longwood area campus”. According to the state’s environmental review,Children’s project will add more than 8,000 vehicles a day to the LMA traffic, is that healthy for the city?

    • LocalLady

      The Prouty Garden is a unique, healing space that provides much-needed emotional support for the primary population of Children’s Hospital–the sick children, their families, and staff who treat them. Administrators are being pressed for larger, newer facilities to treat very sick children and for more research space. This does not need to be framed in such an adversarial way. Administrators and architects ought to reconsider creative ways for a number of administrative functions of the Longwood Medical Area to be moved either to a nearby Brookline Village property (mentioned in greenie’s comment) or to their current Waltham facility, with appropriate video and computer network linkages to maintain constructive communication with support functions. Space in their Longwood Medical facility that is liberated by the move of these units can then be a temporary home for the NICU and sequentially other areas in need of upgrading.

      Moving any employees to another facility will not be popular, involve some inconvenience and retraining, and require new ways to motivate and engage individuals. But if administrators and Trustees adopt this kind of bold plan, it will endear them to their PRIMARY clientele–sick children, their families, and clinical caregivers–by honoring the mission of this healing garden, and will bring new gifts to Children’s Hospital.

  • Sunrisefading

    Honestly, would you rather have a tree or state of the art health care for children? I full well understand the healing impact of nature…but what about the healing impact of the medical care that has sustained the lives of countless children? How many stand to lose their battles if the hospital does not keep pace with innovation and technology and proven methods to heal? Memories and sentiment are important…but selfish in the light of the loss that many families face with out expansion of this important institution. Better to grieve the loss of the garden than the unnecessary loss of children because there is no room or infrastructure to treat them. Change hurts…and heals.

    • Lucy’s mom

      Actually, the hospital has a number of campuses in the Boston suburbs. If it moved more of its programs from the downtown building to the more expansive facilities in the suburbs, there would be plenty space for private rooms and a NICU rennovation. Not to mention many happy families who have to fight traffic and pay for parking in the Longwood Medical area.
      There are feasible alternatives…

    • MikeInMass

      Healing is more than just application of the latest technology. The garden provides an oasis from the noise and rush of modern medical practice, much more than its size might suggest, and it provides an inner healing. I work at a medical device company that would benefit greatly from an expansion, but I have also rested in the garden as a student in a research lab there. The garden has more benefit as a different therapeutic modality that cannot be provided with the hospital walls. One must experience the garden to understand its healing power.

    • Loren

      Families do not face a loss if they are hospitalized in a two-bed rather than a single room. They do face an immense loss if on the first day their child might go outside, perhaps after months in a hospital room with beeping machines and blinking monitors, their child cannot go to this quiet, green space and watch the squirrels and finches, listen to the fountain, be pushed in a wheelchair around the paths, and rest under the giant redwood.

  • Voice in the wilderness

    Remember, this is Children’s Hospital. They just dumped 5000 patients from an urban clinic this year with only a few months notice and no legitimate plan to place them elsewhere (“nothing to do with money, only mission” they said). A well founded rumor in the neighborhood is they are going to close this long time clinic at Martha Eliot shortly and again with no community notice.

  • disability_is_not_death

    It’s absolutely ridiculous that they have to get rid of the Prouty Garden. I understand the need to improve facilities and expand, but these facilities are crucial for the emotional well-being of patients, families, staff and visitors. When I worked at Children’s, it was often a place I went to when grieving the loss of a patient.

  • David Schwartz

    Try to imagine the residents of New York City without Central Park.

  • Julie

    I have sat within the roots of the great redwood and cried. I have played with my kids as they jumped over the roots. I have stretched my arms around its enormous trunk and reached to touch the fingers of both daughters as they reached for mine and each other. I have read and written, feeling held in the roots. I have watched kids playing, leaping from root to root in many circles around the tree, holding his mom’s patient hand. I have seen the new plans, with new trees. Why build a new garden? Why plant new trees? Joni Mitchell’s brilliant song lyric, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone..” fits here. We have beauty, space, room for so many private moments of connection, prayer, play, and quiet fresh air among many. We have a historical gift. There are many brilliant, creative architects and builders that can figure out how to preserve this beloved garden while developing new space for treatment and research. Please, go back to the drawing board after spending some good time in the garden. Enjoy this sacred sanctuary and find a new plan.

  • Peter’s Mom

    What about all those patients who NEED the Prouty Garden while construction is under way? My son has been a patient at Children’s Boston for years, and there is no substitution for being able to get outside with fresh air, real grass and plants, and unfiltered sunshine. A window view is nice, but not the same as getting outdoors. If the hospital NEEDS to build more, then build over the current playground. The only children who can play on that playground are children who are feeling well enough to play. The children who NEED the Prouty Garden are not well enough to play. When they get out to the garden, they see the beauty of nature and can forget about being sick for awhile. If you try to take them to the playground, it is only heartbreak to remind them that they are too ill to play.

  • Kelly

    Honestly, what is more important – a garden that can be replaced or saving childrens lives? I understand the value of it and what it represents to families, but in the middle of the city there is limited room to expand. I would expect that saving lives presents a negotiable situation.

    • MikeInMass

      If someone loses the will to live, it is hard for medical practice to work. I remember being in a hospital alone overnight as a small kid, waiting for minor surgery the next day. I looked out the window to see the expanse of tombstones in the adjacent cemetery. The walls were cold and sterile. The view from a child’s eyes are different than from an adult’s. Where do you more associate with the joie de vivre of childhood: a park or a hospital room? What is “life” and where does it mean to “safe the *life* of a child?”

  • greenie

    I understand Children’s Hospital has plans to build in Brookline Village and rent space out. Could not some of the functions currently at the main building be moved to this new site instead of renting to others there, and the new Fenway building be smaller so that Prouty Garden can be saved. Single rooms may be the current standard, but nature also heals.

  • Dee Stonewall

    Retain Prouty Garden. It’s a sanctuary were a sanctuary should be and need be. No way remove it.

  • pato

    Fatal flaws? Sounds like this plan has a fatal flaw