Boston Children’s Hospital is known as one of the top hospitals in the world. It’s an elite pediatric center that treats devious and complex medical disorders, researches cures, and saves children’s lives.
The hospital is in the Longwood Medical Area, and there’s not a lot of breathing room there. Children’s is cheek by jowl with its neighbors — Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Center. The property is pricey and open space is a rarity. So when a hospital needs to expand, as Children’s does, it’s hard pressed to find space.
But not far from the jam of traffic outside Children’s, tucked between the hospital’s main buildings, is a half-acre oasis called Prouty Garden.
It has fountains, pine trees and birches, and a 65-foot dawn redwood tree. There’s a gazebo in the corner, alcoves shrouded by shrubs for privacy, little squirrel and rabbit sculptures, and real rabbits, too. The garden has won national acclaim.
On one of our visits, a family picnicked under the redwood. A little girl sat on a bench with an oxygen tank. Parents pushed children in wheelchairs and with IV poles. Staff had lunch on the lawn and at tables on the terrace. Such has been life in Prouty Garden for almost 60 years.
Now, Prouty is at the center of a piqued battle that’s pit some staff and families of patients against the hospital. That’s because next year, the garden is slated to be demolished. The hospital plans to build in its place an 11-story, $1.5 billion clinical building. It’ll feature a state-of-the art neonatal intensive care unit, a pediatric heart center with a cardiac clinic, operating rooms and enough space so the hospital can offer all patients private rooms.
Tami Rich, of Ashland, says it will save lives, and that’s what matters most to her.
“Garden spaces and healing spaces are incredibly important to me,” Rich says. “But saving the lives of kids, for me, it’s sort of an apples and oranges conversation.”
Children’s Hospital helped save her son Jameson’s life. He was born with complex heart defects. His mother spent hundreds of nights at Children’s with him — almost always in a room with another patient.
“You would finally get your really sick kid settled after being admitted, and it can take six hours to get everybody to see you once you get admitted,” she says. “And then at 3 [a.m.] someone else gets admitted into the room. That kid might be coughing or crying, and your kid just got to sleep. You need that space to heal and have your private time while you face these challenges.”
Rich’s son is now 22 and doing well.
Gus Murby, of Medfield, also had a son treated at Boston Children’s Hospital — Gus Junior. He had leukemia and endured two bone marrow transplants. Frequently, the family practically lived at the hospital with him. The best times they had together were outdoors in the Prouty Garden. They’d bring binoculars and watch hawks.
Gus died in 2007 when he was 17. His family brought him to the garden to take his final breath.
“We asked if we could go outside and if he would not have a tube in his throat,” Murby recalls. “He was intubated, so basically it was under the sky and without a tube. And he passed away quietly.”
On a recent visit to the garden, Murby pointed to the place where his son died. He says he wants the garden to remain for all the future families of Children’s Hospital.
“I can’t tell you how touching it is, I guess, to know that somebody 50 to 60 years ago did this and to understand — when you’re sitting there in the middle of it — why they did it. This is something that a small number of people intensely understand,” Murby says.
Prouty Garden exists because of Olive Prouty, a Brookline novelist and poet. She had two daughters who died as infants, and she funded two hospital wards in their memory. But when the hospital had to tear down that building, she agreed to fund the creation and upkeep of the garden, despite concern the hospital might one day tear it down. She bestowed it to the hospital in 1956.
“This is part of what makes Children’s Hospital so special,” reflects Elaine Meyer, a clinical psychologist and registered nurse who directs an institute on ethics at Children’s. She’s helping to lead the push to save Prouty Garden.
“This is part of the healing that we have to offer, part of the therapy that we have to offer. This is not just a nice little sentimental space,” she says.
The save Prouty campaign has included sidewalk gatherings outside the hospital. Among those rallying: landscape architect Tom Paine, who designed a corner of Prouty Garden. For him, this is partly a land-use issue.
“Open space is not just a building site waiting to happen, which is how we too often look at open space,” Paine says. “We consider it just simply tomorrow’s building site, when it’s not that.”
But hospital executives say they’re dedicated to developing new green space. And they emphasize that with the new building, they’ll end up with about 9,000 more square feet of green space than they have now. It won’t be in one place, but many — some of which already exist and will be expanded, and several that will be new.
“I think we have a great opportunity to not just replicate but evolve those types of spaces,” says Dr. Kevin Churchwell, the executive vice president of health affairs and chief operating officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, who also worked for many years as a critical care pediatrician.
Churchwell says landscape architects hired by the hospital are designing an indoor winter garden, an outdoor roof garden on the hospital’s main building, and other spaces, including an earth-level exterior garden about half the size of Prouty.
But some opponents say those spaces won’t come close to replicating Prouty Garden.
“They’re manufactured. They’re not authentic. They’re kind of put-in green. Fake green. Cheese Whiz,” says Episcopal priest Joel Ives, from Brookline, who has prayed with patients in Prouty Garden. He’s one of 12,000 people who’ve signed a petition to preserve the space.
Children’s Churchwell says the garden has a great history with the hospital. But, he says, times have changed and the needs are dire.
“Our major discussion is around census management — trying to figure out, given our number of beds and number of children who want or need our care, how do we manage that? It’s not a match right now,” Churchwell explains.
He says the hospital looked seriously at alternative sites for the new clinical building.
“And looking at the other sites within this area, we sort of ruled out what didn’t work and came up that the building that we’re going to build made the most sense from a cost standpoint, a time standpoint and a feasibility standpoint,” he explains
Opponents say they asked to see detailed analyses of the sites but the hospital never provided them. In filings with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Children’s said the other sites didn’t offer a big enough space or were too far from the main buildings to provide optimal medical care.
The hospital’s head of real estate, Charles Weinstein, said in a 2103 interview with WBUR that those issues were “fatal flaws.”
We asked Churchwell why hospital executives didn’t consider Prouty Garden a deal breaker for the new building. “Priority,” he replies. “What’s the most important thing that we do here? The most important thing that we do here is to take care of children who need us desperately. And that care is provided by our caregivers and by the space. And if the space is not where it needs to be, that’s an important issue that we have to deal with.”
Murby, who brought his son to Prouty Garden to die, calls it the “soul” of the hospital.
“It really boils down to what you’re in the business of doing. If you’re in the business of clinically treating patients, end of story, you’re absolutely right,” he says. “If you’re in the business of healing patients, and within your medical knowledge you can treat them but you realize they’re more than just that; if you’re running a hospital and you want staff to care the way I believe this Children’s staff cares, you need a place they can come. This is not just a garden for the kids.”
Prouty supporters are now pursuing legal action, hoping for an 11th hour reprieve. They’ve asked Attorney General Maura Healey to block the hospital from building on Prouty Garden. To bolster their case, they point to letters between Prouty and hospital officials about the garden’s future, and a plaque the hospital erected and still stands in the garden. It reads, in part:
“Mrs. Prouty insisted on perpetually maintaining this location as a haven…” and, “Because of Mrs. Prouty’s vision, this garden will exist as long as Children’s Hospital has patients, families, and staff to enjoy it.”
Attorney Greg McGregor, of McGregor and Legere, says a state law pertaining to charitable gifts could be the basis for action by the attorney general.
“If necessary, [we’ll seek] a lawsuit to see to it that the garden is saved in perpetuity, as the original gift contemplated, which the hospital asked Mrs. Prouty for, and which her will specifies in endowing the garden,” McGregor says.
But the hospital has a surprising ally. Mason Smith is Olive Prouty’s grandson, and he heads the Olive Higgins Prouty Foundation, which his grandmother set up to endow the garden.
Smith is also a retired architect who worked for Shepley Bulfinch, the firm that designed the hospital’s Berthiaume building and is designing the new clinical building. Smith is resigned to Children’s Hospital building on the garden his grandmother created. In fact, he’s on the hospital committee that’s helping to develop the new green spaces.
“I guess I saw this as where the hospital was headed, and then my interest was, ‘Well, let’s do the best of it that we can,’ ” Smith explains. “I was asked continually by the people that are very sad about the garden’s going, did my grandmother say the garden should never be changed or removed? And I said, ‘No, my grandmother was a smart woman. She knew things were temporal and didn’t last forever.’ ”
Smith says he takes hospital executives at their word that they fully explored alternatives. The foundation gives between $40,000 and $50,000 a year for the garden’s upkeep — not enough, he says, to give him any pull over the hospital’s decision.
But for Elizabeth Richter of Canton, Connecticut, the plans to demolish Prouty are a betrayal.
When her brother was treated at Children’s for multiple brain tumors, he loved being outside in the garden and watching the squirrels, Richter says. He died at the age of 12 in 1973. The family scattered his ashes in Prouty Garden.
“I have always felt a tremendous commitment to Boston Children’s Hospital. And every year since my brother’s death I have come here, to celebrate my brother, to walk through the garden, to remember him,” she says. “And for the administrators of this hospital to betray the people of Boston, to betray their patients and the parents and the families like this is, it’s just, I can’t even speak.”
As of now, the hospital plans to begin construction on the new clinical building next year. And, administrators say, they will hold multiple ceremonies to honor Prouty Garden and say goodbye.