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.”
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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