dear american horticultural society: don’t sell river farm.

I received a member e-mail from the American Horticultural Society (“AHS”) this afternoon:

The American Horticultural Society is at a turning point with regards to its core mission. The Board is aware an endowment is needed to provide the horticultural programs that serve the interests of our current membership and donor base and further investment is needed to attract and serve future horticulturists and gardeners.

We would really welcome your help in assuring that AHS can fulfill its core National Mission for the next hundred years.

Were we to keep River Farm and truly fulfill our national mission, it would take current funds of over $4 million and an endowment of more than $15 million. Raising that amount of money from individuals or entities today would be a daunting task and one that many on the AHS Board believe cannot be successfully done within the needed timeframe.

For the past 50 years we have tried to both be a good steward of River Farm and advance our core mission without a lot of success. Our spending on national programing has steadily decreased over that time. Capital campaign efforts have been inadequate to cover costs at River Farm. In the recent past we had to take out a mortgage of $1.2 million to provide adequate sewerage and irrigation systems for the property when a capital campaign failed to meet its goal. As expenses to maintain River Farm continued to grow, popular mission-based programs held across the nation have had to be cancelled to meet our available revenue streams and even that was not enough. As a result, today, we have deferred maintenance projects for River Farm that exceed $3 million dollars and our horticultural programing lacks the depth, breadth, and geographic diversity it once did.

The Board wholly believes that River Farm deserves a steward that will respect its historical significance, preserve its beauty, and make it thrive. AHS has acted as a good neighbor for nearly 50 years engaging with the community through volunteer opportunities, hosting events, and functioning within the Fairfax County imposed special exception rules that have allowed AHS to use River Farm as its headquarters. These restrictions have limited our operating hours, number of visitors and events annually, limited parking and established a curfew. Thus, our limited operations have contributed to our problems generating enough money to support River Farm. The newly imposed Historical Overlay District further increases the costs of operating River Farm.

The decision to sell River Farm was made after much deliberation and with the intent to keep River Farm and AHS individually intact and provided for financially. At no time has the Board entertained an offer to develop River Farm, nor is maximum profit the primary motivator for the sale.

We believe in reading the deed and other legal documents generated at the time when AHS purchased the property, that Mrs. Enid Haupt was very interested in keeping the property out of the hands of a foreign government. Promising the funds for AHS to retire the mortgage on the property served to do that, and also invested in AHS and its core horticultural mission she loved so much. I think if she were alive today and asked to make a choice between AHS becoming the conservator of River Farm or investing the sale proceeds in the future of AHS and horticulture in America, she would choose the latter.

Our intention is to take the money received from the sale of River Farm and put it into an endowment in Mrs. Enid Haupt’s name. By so doing, her original gift in support of horticulture will be multiplied many times over and provide the legacy for AHS that I am sure she intended 50 years ago.

Please be assured that we are working diligently to secure a win-win-win solution that benefits AHS, our members, our neighbors, and Fairfax County. To stop this process prematurely now would be to do a great disservice to everyone involved.

We would truly welcome your support. Please visit our Facebook page and post on social media your support for AHS and our national programming. We would love to hear why you joined AHS and continue to support it. We appreciate hearing from our members, and we do listen to you. We want to continue to deliver to you the joys of gardening and horticulture for at least another 100 years.



Tom sig
Terry Hayes
Board Chair
American Horticultural Society

Well they want support on this? Can’t give it. Not that my dissenting voice from Pennsylvania matters here, because it would mean nothing to the American Horticultural Society, but by this post I am encouraging others to step forward. This property needs to be saved. It’s historically important on several levels.

I am someone who loves history. I also am a fan of architectural history and with this property, there is horticultural history to be considered as well. Antique and heirloom plants are definitively a thing with me.

River Farm located at 7931 E Boulevard Dr, Alexandria, VA 22308 is beautiful. I saw it once a lifetime ago. It has a contentious history.

Giles Brent and his wife, Mary Kittamaquund, a princess of the Piscataway tribe were given the property via a land grant in 1653 or 1654.

According to the AHS website:

“River Farm’s first English family was the Brents, a Catholic family who played an active role in the early colonial life of Maryland. Captain Giles Brent originally landed in Jamestown, Virginia but in 1638 returned from a trip to England accompanied by his sisters, Margaret and Mary, to settle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. In 1647 the Brents settled near Aquia in Virginia. In 1653/54, Giles Brent obtained patents totaling 1,800 acres for his year-old son, Giles, Jr. Giles’ wife was a princess of the Piscataway tribe of Native Americans who had been entrusted to Margaret Brent as a child by her father, a convert to Christianity. The grant of 1,800 acres in their child’s name was named Piscataway Neck and included the land which is now River Farm.

Giles, Jr. was never at ease with the local Dogue tribe, or, it seems, anyone else. It has been stated that his encounters with the native tribe were a precursor to Bacon’s Rebellion, and at home his treatment of his wife was so violent that she obtained a legal separation in 1679, the first in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Giles returned to England where he died in September of that year. Piscataway Neck passed to a cousin, George Brent, and through him to a brother-in-law, William Clifton, in 1739.

Upon inheriting title to the land, William Clifton renamed the property Clifton’s Neck. By 1757, Clifton built a brick house on the property which, much enlarged and remodeled over the subsequent two centuries, now serves as the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society.

Clifton suffered business losses and as early as 1755 advertised part of his holdings for sale. Gentleman farmer George Washington of neighboring Mount Vernon was desirous of buying this land but because of what he described in his diaries as Clifton’s “shuffling behavior” it was not until 1760 that Washington obtained clear title to the 1,800 acres for payment of £1,210 at the equivalent of a bankruptcy sale. To be fair to Clifton, not all the “shuffling” was his fault. At Mrs. Clifton’s insistence only a portion of the property was first offered, the house and surrounding land to be retained for the Cliftons’ use. Washington refused to buy the reduced package. It was not until Clifton was forced to submit to a commissioner’s sale — Washington was a member of the commission — that Washington acquired the entire property and changed its name to River Farm.”

Then as history and time progressed, River Farm was passed down through a couple of generations of Washingtons and eventually sold with 652 acres of Washington’s original land to the Snowden brothers of New Jersey. This included the houses known as “Wellington,” “Waynewood,” and “Collingwood.” The property was subsequently home to numerous owners including a man named Malcolm Matheson, who bought the property in 1919. Matheson placed the property on the market in 1971 and received an offer from the Soviet Embassy who planned to use the land as a retreat or dacha for its staff. Now what is interesting about this Soviet fact is where River Farm is literally at the line in the Potomac River where Virginia and Maryland meet. AND there is a Soviet owned historic house in Chestertown Maryland called “Pioneer Point” which was purchased by Soviets in 1972 (seems like they bought this after they could not get River Farm.) I have seen it from the outside a few times. (for more on THAT historic property see 2017 Russian compound on Md.’s Eastern Shore gathers dust, awaits its fate and A Spy Visit to the Chesapeake Bay Russian Embassy Estate December 30, 2016 by The Chestertown Spy)

To save River Farm from a dubious future as a Soviet dacha, it was purchased by Philadelphia’s Walter Annenberg’s sister, Enid. Enid Annenberg Haupt was a philanthropist, gardener, and member of the AHS Board of Directors who took interest in the property. Enid was known for her devotion to the New York Botanical Gardens. She also donated a trust to maintain the Cloisters Gardens in NYC, and donated gardens named after her at the Smithsonian. And this is but a drop in the bucket of the important things she did, and so much of it was involving public gardens and preserving horticultural institutions.

AHS purchased the property in the 1970s and Enid donated funds over several years to help AHS pay off the mortgage. It was her express wish that the grounds remain open to the public (how is that working for you now AHS?).

AHS moved their headquarters there in 1973 and the ultimate irony considering how the AHS wants to sell this is they still say on their website in the history section “Since then, the AHS has made River Farm a living example of the Society’s principles and mission.

AHS does not seem to realize that every good gardener recognizes the smell of manure.

A movement to save River Farm is definitely in play in Virginia. SAVERIVERFARM has an anthology of all of the media to date. This SHOULD be a national issue. And although the AHS claims they would never, ever sell for development, I don’t think they can guarantee that, do you?

Save River Farm has a simple mission:

“The Save River Farm campaign aims to protect 27 acres of natural and open green space located along the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia, between Old Town Alexandria and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.”

It is reported the oldest tree on the property is a giant Osage Orange. Osage Oranges were a tree that Jefferson received seedlings from as a result of the Lewis & Clark expeditions, so how is it possible that tree was a Jefferson gift? There are also Kentucky Coffee Trees, believed to have been descended from the first trees planted by Washington. This property also has a grove of Franklinia Trees, yes those famous trees we can credit Philadelphia botanists John and William Bartram for. The tree was named in honor of their father’s friend Benjamin Franklin.

In 2004, River Farm was designated a Horticultural Landmark by the American Society for Horticultural Science. This recognition was due to the ability to retain its historic character while at the same time showcasing the best and most environmentally responsible gardening practices. And so AHS wishes to sell this? Is it perhaps time to take a deep dive into their finances? To me this has the whiff of mismanagement.

Oh and did you know that this property has a pair of old gates once used at the White House?

The Washington Post recently had a fascinating article:

Washington Post: American Horticultural Society board rift could complicate proposed sale of historic River Farm. Five dissenting members say sale is ‘morally and ethically wrong’ and legally problematic.

By Fredrick Kunkle
April 24, 2021 at 3:52 p.m. EDT

“A split in the American Horticultural Society’s leadership could complicate the nonprofit organization’s plan to sell George Washington’s historic River Farm property.

Five members of the nonprofit’s board of directors on Friday issued a statement stating their opposition to the sale. They also called on other AHS members, donors, government officials and members of the public to take action to preserve the 27.6-acre site and its public access.

“There is growing evidence that the decision to sell River Farm is not only morally and ethically wrong, but is fraught with serious legal issues,” the statement says.

George Washington’s historic River Farm is worth saving for reasons beyond the president, historians say

Board members Skipp Calvert, Tim Conlon, Laura Dowling, Holly Shimizu and Marcia Zech said they could no longer remain silent about their opposition as they had been directed to do by fellow board members….Virginia state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who successfully sponsored legislation to protect the historical resources at the property and ensure public access, confirmed the statement’s authenticity.

“The wheels are coming off,” Surovell said in an interview, citing the mounting opposition to AHS’s putting the site up for sale and what now appears to be a 50-50 split on the organization’s 10-memberboard.

The development comes as state and local officials have entered negotiations to acquire the land as a park and preserve its historic value and public access. Earlier this month, Fairfax County modified the zoning regulations of the property to protect its historic resources by creating a “historic overlay district” around River Farm. The regulations cannot stop development, but it gives local officials more say in how the property can be used.”

Terry Hayes should be REMOVED as board chair of the AHS. Immediately. And this property is viable American history…including horticultural history.

I will not belong to the American Horticultural Society that sells River Farm. Gardeners and historians alike I urge you to contact AHS and tell them to STOP THE SALE OF RIVER FARM:

Phone: 703.768.5700
Fax: 703.768.8700

To me top make a point with more local gardeners this would be like if Natural Lands suddenly announced they were selling Stoneleigh. I will also note that the American Horticultural Society has received conservation based offers and turned them down. Simply put that means the current board of the AHS is off their mission and the original mission of WHY River Farm was acquired in the first place. AHS is just about the money. Tell them NO. Tell them they are WRONG.

After all how can you believe a non-profit about gardening and horticulture including garden preservation if they aren’t willing to save their own gardens?

If the American Horticultural Society WANTED to save River Farm, they would. That is the bottom line.

If you wish to help the Save River Farm folks, this is their website: Save River Farm.

The British are so good at saving these historic treasures and their gardens. I wish people in the US cared as much as they do.


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