Zelia Hoffman Does It Again: Untold Stories of the 1916 Flower Show at Bartow

Why is a long-forgotten flower show still relevant over one hundred years later? And why was a woman named Zelia Hoffman once a galvanizing force in the gardening world? A little digging into the past reveals some answers.

Sydney Percy Kendrick (British, 1874–1955). Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman (detail), ca. 1930. Oil on canvas. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Aymar Johnson, 1978.02. Zelia Hoffman founded the International Garden Club (IGC) in 1914. The organization accomplished an astonishing amount of work in the few short years of her leadership, including the restoration of the old Bartow mansion and the creation of a formal garden by the firm of Delano & Aldrich (1915); a June flower show (1916); plans for an extensive rose garden designed by Delano & Aldrich (1917); publication of a horticultural journal (1917–19); and setting up a dairy to provide fresh farm milk to children living in poverty during the First World War (1918). Following her husband’s death in 1919, Zelia—an ardent anglophile—moved permanently to England.

On a wintry day in February 1916, Zelia Hoffman (1867–1929), President of the International Garden Club, hosted a meeting to discuss plans for a summer flower show to be held on the grounds of the garden club’s headquarters at the historic Bartow mansion in Pelham Bay Park. The group gathered at 620 Fifth Avenue in New York City, the elegant townhouse between 49th and 50th Streets that was designed by Carrère & Hastings in 1903 for Zelia and her husband, Charles Frederick Hoffman, on the site of today’s Rockefeller Center. As committee members arrived, Mrs. Hoffman’s butler would have taken their coats (probably highly fashionable furs, for the ladies) and then ushered them into either the reception room or the library. Both rooms had a view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at the corner and faced the stately Buckingham Hotel across the street, a luxury residence for wealthy families that was demolished in the 1920s to make way for the new Saks department store. The month had gotten off to a snowy start, and the mere thought of roses, irises, and peonies must have been a welcome antidote to the winter doldrums for these well-heeled garden lovers.

Carrère & Hastings, house of Zelia and Charles F. Hoffman, 620 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 1903. Illustrated in House and Garden, November 1903. The Cole-Haan store at Rockefeller Center now stands on or near the former site of the Hoffman house. The 1910 census enumerates ten servants in the household—from Scandinavia, Ireland, and francophone Switzerland—including three butlers, two laundresses, several maids, and a French-speaking governess. By 1922, the neighborhood, with “its aristocratic home-like atmosphere,” was changing rapidly, according to an article about the demolition of the Buckingham Hotel, which was across the street from the Hoffman house. “With the advent a few years ago of the big department stores north of Thirty-fourth Street and the small store invasion above Forty-second Street, it became apparent that the avenue south of Fifty-seventh Street was destined for commercial uses.” (New York Times, July 30, 1922)
Mrs. E. H. Harriman, March 7, 1927. Bain News Service, Library of Congress. Mary Williamson Averell Harriman (1851–1932) was the widow of the railroad tycoon Edward Henry Harriman (1848–1909). “The inauguration of this Summer show is due primarily to the president, Mrs. Chas. F. Hoffman, actively supported by Mrs. E. H. Harriman, Mrs. H. de Berkeley Parsons, Dr. Geo. Norton Miller, and others who take a leading part in the club’s affairs.” (Excerpt from the Florist’s Exchange, June 10, 1916, in the IGC Journal, August 1917)
Charles H. Totty, Wallace R. Pierson, and F. R. Pierson were among the well-known figures in horticultural circles who served as members of the IGC flower show’s scheduling committee. Photos from The American Florist, December 30, 1922

When the flower-show organizers met at Mrs. Hoffman’s house on that cold February day, “a schedule committee was appointed which got to work at once” (IGC Journal, 1917). Eighteen horticultural experts and professionals sat on the committee, and their schedule was “afterward adopted by the members of the International Garden Club at a meeting held at the Biltmore Hotel during the time of the New York Spring flower show [i.e., the International Flower Show].”

Grand Central Palace, ca. 1916. Postcard. Avery Classics, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. The Grand Central Palace—an imposing exhibition hall on Lexington Avenue near Grand Central Terminal that was demolished in the 1960s—was the site of the International Flower Show, which “attracts all classes of people, from the woman whose garden is a small window box to the wealthy country gentleman who collects rare orchids for his conservatory.” “More than 25,000 different varieties of flowers will be shown, and the exhibits will cover 80,000 square feet of floor space.” (New York Times, April 2, 1916)
Exhibition hall, Grand Central Palace. Architecture and Building, July 1911. This was the main exhibition hall of the International Flower Show. In 1914, the New York Times described that year’s event, which was attended by nearly 100,000 people. “The marble walls and columns of the hall are green with creepers and all around are banked masses of foliage and blossoms. Clipped yews and box for the formal garden, great banks of roses, azaleas with a thousand blossoms in a single clump, fields of tall lilies, masses of ferns, palm trees towering to the parapet of the mezzanine, trees full of orchids—all these and more have been brought to the Grand Central Palace.”
Marie Louise Rodewald, “waitress” at the International Flower Show, Grand Central Palace, April 1916. Bain News Service, Library of Congress. Proceeds from the tea garden benefited the Red Cross and other war relief organizations. About 150 members of the Junior League served as waitresses.
Publicity poster for the International Flower Show, 1915. The New York Public Library

The International Flower Show was a huge weeklong exhibition at the now-demolished Grand Central Palace on Lexington Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets. By 1916, this fairly new event, with elaborate exhibits in a grandiose space, had become an annual highlight not only for commercial and private gardeners but also for the public, and it would have been a must-see for IGC members. On February 21, 1916, a New York Times writer proclaimed in “Plan Flower Show to Beat the World” that it “will be the greatest show that this country or probably the world has ever known.” The prize money that year was more than $16,000 (in contrast, the IGC only offered about $2,500 in prizes for its fledgling show a couple of months later).

The Horticultural Society of New York and the New York Florists’ Club ran the International Flower Show, which was managed for many years by the English-born horticulturalist Arthur Herrington (1866–1950). In 1916, Zelia Hoffman and the IGC also hired Herrington—who had previously overseen the planting of the IGC’s formal garden at Bartow—as the secretary-manager of their upcoming show. (He was later put in charge of implementing Delano & Aldrich’s designs for the club’s rose garden, which was never realized because of America’s entry into the First World War.)

Frances Benjamin Johnston and Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Terrace Fountain, Bartow Mansion, International Garden Club, fall 1915. Hand-colored glass-lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Arthur Herrington supervised the planting of Bartow-Pell’s formal garden in 1915.

The Biltmore Hotel—where the IGC met to finalize plans for their June flower show—had opened its doors on New Year’s Eve in 1913 at a cost of $10 million dollars. Spanning the entire block between Vanderbilt and Madison Avenues and 43rd and 44th Streets, the hotel was designed by Warren & Wetmore, who were also the architects of Grand Central Terminal and the Grand Central Palace. It had one thousand bedrooms, a number of dining areas, a grand ballroom, and a variety of other high-end amenities. (The famous clock that hung at the entrance to the Palm Court was a legendary meeting spot.) The Biltmore was also a popular place for large gatherings, and its location near the spring flower show made it the ideal site for the IGC to conduct their business in April 1916.

Biltmore Hotel, New York City. The New York Public Library. The now-demolished Biltmore—which was designed by Warren & Wetmore as part of the Grand Central Terminal complex—opened its doors in 1913. This was where Dr. George Norton Miller presided over a meeting of the International Garden Club in April 1916.

Although Zelia Hoffman and the IGC were inspired by the International Flower Show, they could not compete with the enormous scale of that event in size, prize money, and showmanship. So how could the club create a smaller show that was special enough to attract a large number of visitors? A fresh angle was needed, and the pastoral grounds of the new waterfront headquarters in the Bronx provided the perfect setting for what the IGC claimed would be “the first out-door flower show held in the vicinity of New York.” In addition, the location of the Bartow mansion—which was near the Westchester County line—made the show easily accessible to amateur gardeners in the ever-expanding suburbs north of New York City. Finally, the IGC Journal discloses that the idea for a show en plein air had been influenced by English precedents. “The inauguration of open air flower shows in New York is an enterprise well worthwhile, and . . . ultimately they may be made as delightful an outdoor recreation as they have been for years in England.”

June flower show at Bartow, June 1–4, 1916. Journal of the International Garden Club, August 1917

The weather was glorious for the garden club’s show, which was held in tents on the front lawn during the weekend of June 1–4, 1916. “The grounds around the mansion were most delightful in the first green flush of the early summer, all so fresh and beautiful,” enthused the Florist’s Exchange. Judge Alton B. Parker (1852–1926)—a former Democratic nominee for president who had lost the 1904 election to Theodore Roosevelt—declared the show open and announced that Mrs. Frank Sullivan Smith (née Clara A. H. Higgins) had donated $5,000 for evergreens to be planted on the Bartow estate as a memorial to her late brother, Francis W. Higgins, the former governor of New York. (Mrs. Smith, a suffragist who lived at the Plaza Hotel, had recently been a delegate at a large women’s conference, where she spoke passionately against bias toward recent immigrants.)

Rhododendrons, flowering trees and shrubs, hydrangeas, ferns, water plants, conifers, orchids, roses, cut flowers, rock gardens, and more were among the thirty-eight categories that were eligible for cash prizes donated by IGC members. The club also awarded Certificates of Merit for exhibits of flowers, photographs, and educational materials to a number of garden clubs—including those from Greenwich, Rye, New Rochelle, Bedford, Flushing, and Somerset Hills (New Jersey)—and to organizations such as the International Children’s School Farm League, the Women’s National Agricultural and Horticultural Association, and to the Boy Scouts for taking tickets. The four-day event featured lectures and demonstrations, as well as Morris dancing presented by the folk-dance scholar, educator, and author Caroline Crawford.

Was the IGC’s flower show a success? The New Country Life reported that the “somewhat remote location failed to attract the attention of the public that its merits deserved,” and Zelia Hoffman noted that “the show was not well advertised (IGC Journal, 1917). Even though the inaugural event was somewhat disappointing, the organizers still felt encouraged and discussed ways to improve timing, publicity, and other logistics. However, they ultimately decided not to repeat the show, probably because of the First World War, competition from other flower shows and garden clubs, and Zelia’s move to England in 1919.

Although the IGC flower show of 1916 may be lost in time and the International Garden Club no longer exists, Zelia Hoffman’s legacy lives on in Bartow-Pell’s beautiful gardens, grounds, and historic buildings. Today, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and the Bartow-Pell Conservancy maintain this special place for everyone to enjoy.

Margaret Highland, BPMM Historian

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