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.
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.
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].”
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.)
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.
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.”
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