- Keister Evans
My Name Is Keister Evans and I Was There At The Beginning of AHS and River Farm
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
When I heard from a friend that River Farm is up for sale by the American Horticultural Society (AHS), I was surprised and saddened. Thinking back almost 50 years, I can recall the circumstances leading to AHS acquiring the property and the commitment to having it open to the public and utilized as a horticultural center. I joined AHS as Executive Director in 1970 and served in that position until 1976.
This venerable organization was formed in 1922 and quickly became the Nation’s leader in horticulture. I was proud to become its new Executive Director.
At the time I joined AHS their offices were in Washington, DC. At my request the officers agreed to move them to an Alexandria, VA office building. At the same time, I suggested we look for an appropriate headquarters with grounds for horticultural gardens and displays. Having previously served as the as Executive Secretary of the American Rose Society located in Columbus Ohio, Ohio Park of Roses, a 13-acre rose garden in a much larger park, I understood that the AHS’s mission to make America a Land of Gardeners needed a show place to symbolize their mission.
We looked at several possibilities including the Grosvenor Estate in MD and Hillwood in D.C. At the same time, but it came to our attention that The Wellington estate (now called River Farm) had been on the market but withdrawn by the owner, Mr. Malcom Matheson, when it was learned that the Russian Embassy was attempting to purchase it for a retreat location.
There was great concern that this property, once a part of one of President George Washington’s five farms, would fall into Russian hands. We contacted Mr. Matheson through a realtor and learned that he would consider selling the property to AHS. The sale price was $1 million.
The challenge to raise the funds was undertaken by the AHS officers, primarily David Leach, president, and Frederick J. (Fritz) Close. Fritz Close was recently retired as Chairman of the Alcoa Aluminum Co. in Pittsburgh, one of the many places he was very well connected. Mr. Close arranged an appointment with Mrs. Enid Annenberg Haupt in NY, and in Dec. 1972, he, David Leach and I visited Mrs. Haupt in her NY apartment. We discussed the Wellington property and its potential for the American Horticultural Society. Mrs. Haupt was known for her devout interest in horticulture and gardens and had supported other horticultural endeavors. She was extremely interested in the Wellington estate, particularly for the historical importance as a part of George Washington’s River Farm and as a showplace for horticulture and gardening. She tentatively agreed to make a donation to AHS to purchase the property, pending completion of the necessary legal and public requirements.
Following that meeting, Atty. William Braun and I visited Mr. Matheson at his home in Florida and reviewed the titles, land plats and documents to arrange for the sale. The real estate settlement took place in the ballroom of the Wellington mansion in Jan. 1973. Early that same year, I conducted meetings with local civic groups and individuals to explain the intentions of AHS and alleviate any possible concerns related to AHS's ownership and occupancy of the Wellington property . These concerns were satisfied once we explained that AHS would occupy the estate as our national headquarters and maintain gardens and educational programs that would be open to the public.
Later in 1973 the interior of the main house was remodeled to accompany the AHS offices, and the staff moved in from the Alexandria location. The AHS Board agreed to call the property “River Farm” in honor of President George Washington’s previous ownership.
A "Grand Opening” was held on the property May 1, 1974 with many guests and luminaries present. Mrs. Haupt and the AHS officers and directors were present. First Lady, Mrs. Richard (Pat) Nixon was the guest of honor. She came from Washington by boat down the Potomac River and was greeted and accompanied with a four-in-hand horse drawn carriage.
Note: Secret Service agents were everyplace, known and unknown including in the Potomac river when the boat landed and on the roof of the mansion.
AHS Pres. David Leach and I spoke, and Mrs. Nixon responded by complimenting AHS and giving full credit to her friend Enid Annenberg Haupt for her generous $1 million gift. The celebration was very memorable, with the accompaniment of the U.S. Marine Band followed by a delightful sit-down dinner under a large garden tent.
This was a grand beginning of a perfect fit for the American Horticultural Society located on this beautiful historical property that the public could also enjoy.
It saddens me, as I'm confident it would Mrs. Haupt if she were still alive,
to know that the current Board of Directors of AHS has forsaken her intentions by choosing to sell River Farm to the highest bidder.
Hopefully, an appropriate solution honoring Mrs. Haupt’s intentions is in store to protect this beautiful and important property in perpetuity and keep it open to the public.
American Horticultural Society 1970-1976