Lost Flowers of the Fair

by Margaret Anne Tocharshewsky
From the archives July 22, 2013

Lost Flowers of the Fair
January 9, 2019 Jessica Brey

I visited the “Gardens on Parade” at the New York World’s Fair this morning. They are delightful. Mrs. Harold Irving Pratt and all the other ladies connected with the gardens were very charming….They sent me away with a sweet little corsage of carnations, which gave off the most delicate perfume all the way back to Washington.1

Eleanor Roosevelt
My Day, June 13, 1940

Seventy years have passed since 45 million people descended upon the borough of Queens for a glimpse of the world of tomorrow, filled with the promise of hope and change made possible by technology. The marvel that was the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair still looms large in our nation’s collective memory, if only for iconography such as Harrison and Fouilhoux’s Trylon and Perisphere, emblematic of the shining possibilities that struck a thrilling chord in a population stirring from the depths of the Depression. That the Fair commemorated the 1501 anniversary of the inauguration of our country’s first president, at New York City’s Federal Hall, is largely unremembered today.

 

Lost, too, among these remembrances, is a stunning horticultural achievement that escapes mention in most accounts of the Fair, or merits but a slender reference in more in-depth reviews. Gardens on Parade, at five and one-half acres the largest outdoor flower show to be seen at that time, was what Arthur Bartlett, writing for the New York Herald Tribune called, in the spirit of P.T. Barnum, “‘The Most Stupendous, Most Magnificent, Most Gorgeous’ exhibition of flowers, shrubs, and horticultural beauties ever assembled.”2

 

Though several thousand individuals were involved in its creation and success, one woman, Harriet Barnes Pratt—Mrs. Harold Irving Pratt—had the vision and drive to marshal the talents and resources of gardening’s glitterati and produce an extraordinary exhibit. As the president of Hortus, Inc., she presided over a committee of mostly men, representing the Horticultural Society of New York, The New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Society of American Florists, and the New York Florists’ Club. Formed in 1937 as a non-profit membership corporation to administer the Fair’s horticultural exhibit, Hortus, Inc., drew upon the experience of those involved with New York’s International Flower Show. Under her supervising eye, estate owners, professional growers, commercial nurseries, “dirt gardeners,” and members of garden clubs from across the nation contributed to Gardens on Parade’s 50 outdoor gardens, indoor exhibits, flower shows, and educational displays, with buildings and landscapes designed by Richard and William A. Delano of Delano and Aldrich, in consultation with landscape architect Charles Downing Lay. Richard Delano also designed the magnificent ornamental entry gates behind which Gardens on Parade unfolded.

 

“Mrs. Pratt ‘s selection as head of the group to work out the World’s Fair project, is regarded as a logical one, for few women have attained to such garden wisdom, in practical and ideal ways, as she has been able to acquire in the many years devoted to her favorite subject,” noted a reporter for the New York Sun.3 A philanthropist of considerable wealth, stature, and influence among New York society, Mrs. Pratt was involved with numerous organizations and causes. She was a director of the Horticultural Society, first secretary of the Garden Club of America (1919-1927), and president of the North Country Garden Club.

 

She was a gracious hostess to the annual flower show at Pratt Oval on the family’s Glen Cove estate and to her own “place of welcome,” Welwyn, which the GCA visited for its national convention in 1931.4 Mrs. Pratt decried the littering of highways with billboards, helped to create parks, and lent her support to roadside beautification projects. She also was instrumental in the formation of the first committee on White House furnishings and decor, for which she served as chair.5

 

Harriet Barnes Pratt was, quite simply, a woman who got things done: an enthusiastic, powerful advocate for horticulture, who held “strong opinions and views,”6 was “insistent,”7 persistent, and absolutely wanted “to run the whole show.”8 It is clear that without her generous spirit, resourcefulness, exceptional organizational ability, attention to detail, and eye for the aesthetic, Gardens on Parade would have been a much lesser endeavor.

 

“People who love gardens are happy people, and it is possible to bury many a difference of opinion when we bury the roots of a plant together,” she told Emma Bugbee of the New York Herald Tribune.9 She later noted in her foreword to the exhibit’s souvenir guide, “Amateurs, professionals, and scientists have learned to work happily together, each appreciating what the other can contribute to horticulture. Hortus, Inc….was formed to further this interest.”10

 

Knowing how to navigate Fair bureaucracy contributed greatly to her success. She wrote personally to decision-makers, outlining her concerns, petitioning for better signage, the removal of unattractive concessions, passes for guides, and greater recognition of her group’s efforts.

 

“Why should not those contributing materials to ‘Gardens on Parade’ be given the same courtesies as Borden ‘s Milk wagon and Mrs. Wagner’s pie wagon?” she asked Fair president Grover Whalen, seeking to gain early morning access for flower deliveries from estate owners and commercial nurseries.

 

“It is very difficult to continue as we are. Everyone is discouraged,” she continued. “I have taken over a regular job now, in order to save a salary of $250.00 a week. It is taking all my leadership and all my resourcefulness to keep ‘Gardens on Parade’ going, in the hopes that the Fair attendance will increase in September.”11

 

But she could be flattering and charming as well, sending Whalen “a Valentine between the lines,” in a letter penned on February 13 from New York Hospital, where she was recovering from severe burns.12 At the time of the Fair, she was a grandmother of nine and “Aunt Hat” to the younger generations of the Pratt family, among them (Jerry) Richardson Pratt, Jr., the future husband of Jan Pratt, former GCA president.13 Shortly after the Fair opened on April 30, and Gardens on Parade marked its official opening on May 18, her husband Harold died from pneumonia.

 

Prior to this personal tragedy, she suffered a setback at the hands of Mother Nature. On September 21, 1938, a hurricane tore through the Long Island region, within hours of Gardens on Parade being extensively planted. In addition to the damaging effects of wind and rain, the Flushing River rose and made “mud ponds of the garden plots.”14 The next day it was reported that Mrs. Pratt “was on the grounds, in boots and old clothes, supervising the work of reconstruction.”15 Within a month’s time, however, the cornerstone of the horticultural building was laid, filled with flowers from all 48 states and U.S. territories, and personal notes from 14 governors.

 

Gardens on Parade’s “fortunate location,” in the international section of the fair, “across the street from England and Italy and near the Netherlands ” accorded it further prestige. Within view of the European pavilions, the exhibit’s fan-shaped area was rimmed by the Flushing River, and showcased formal and informal gardens, highlighted by woodland, rock, water, naturalistic, perennial, and tropical displays.16 All were designed to appeal to both garden lovers and homeowners, with practical suggestions for everyone. Among the many highlights were Jackson & Perkins’ Parade of Modem Roses, featuring 8,000 rose bushes, in 250 varieties, originated in 18 different countries,17 and a research greenhouse designed by Lord & Burnham, containing scientific and innovative exhibits, such as hydroponics gardening, overseen by Cornell University.

 

The circular Havemeyer Tribute Garden was the central focus of Gardens on Parade. Rare and expensive plants were contributed by 40 friends of the late Theodore A. Havemeyer, longtime director of the Horticultural Society. Four planted areas rimmed a grass bowl framed by weeping Japanese cherry trees, with paths radiating out to surrounding exhibit areas.

 

The Garden Club of America contributed two theme gardens. The Woodland Garden, with its textured layers and color palette reflecting the changing seasons, featured a meandering brook, and was sponsored by the Garden Clubs of Long Island: the North Country, East Hampton, Southampton, Suffolk, Lawrence, and the South Side Garden Clubs. Nestled in this naturalistic setting was a thatched cottage, designed by architect Lucius S. Beardsley of Rve, NY, for the Old English Thatch Company of Stamford, CT. With a working fireplace, paneled walls, and furnishings by W. & J. Sloane, this charming structure served as the headquarters for the garden clubs and other horticultural organizations, where members could register and use the reference library.

 

The Garden of Tomorrow boasted a forward-looking design by architect Carol Fulkerson, and was sponsored by the Garden Clubs of Bedford, Greenwich, Irvington, Litchfield, Millbrook, New Canaan, Philipstown, Ridgefield, and Rye. Meant to express “the gala spirit and modem feeling of the World ‘s Fair,” the garden featured a corrugated glass fence, pool, and curving pebble path accentuated by beds and borders and a small expanse of lawn.18

 

The South Orange Garden Club contributed to the Wayside Wild Flower Shrine, sponsored by the Garden Club of New Jersey. Filled with native roadside plants, the wooden shelter bore the inscription: “We Are Safe.” Other garden club exhibits intended to educate the public could be seen in the horticultural building, and called attention to conservation, roadside beautification, the study of birds, and other themes embraced by members.

 

Championing the need for “more pants in the garden,” the Men’s Garden Club of New York demonstrated expert gardening skills and artistic flair with its creation of the first “living stamp,” a reproduction of the recently-issued Pony Express stamp, planted with alternanthera and sedum.19

 

Throughout the Fair’s two seasons, a succession of exhibits, flower shows, and flower arrangements appeared in the Central Rotunda. Here Garden Club members were invited to give demonstrations and showcase their work in gaily painted refrigerated niches.

 

Professional growers, trade exhibitors, and other garden vendors sold “everything from seeds to smocks,” and the proceeds from a garden shop sponsored by R.H. Macy benefited Gardens on Parade. The Restaurant Terrace served light refreshments throughout the day, featuring music and a front-seat view of the glorious gardens, which were made even lovelier by nighttime illumination.

 

More than 2,500 garden club members participated in Gardens on Parade, as exhibitors, lecturers, guides, and hostesses. The exhibit showcased their many collective and individual talents, gave them a national platform for their work, and brought them national and international acclaim and recognition.

 

“It was a great source of horticultural education to the countless members who were privileged to see its great beauty as well as benefit by the charm and perfection of its garden architecture,” wrote 1st Vice President Miss Aline Kate Fox and Mrs. George Coggill, in a thank-you to Mrs. Pratt on behalf of the Garden Club of America.20

 

New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Harriet Barnes Pratt shared the same post-Fair vision for Gardens on Parade-that its designs and plantings should live on in a botanical garden for the people of the city’s largest borough.21 However, the entry of the United States into World War II halted Moses’ plans for a park at Flushing Meadows, and the once spectacular gardens fell into disuse. Through the efforts of civic­ minded residents who had tended the plantings during the war, Queens Botanical Garden was opened on June 5, 1948. The advent of the 1964-1965 fair caused Moses to relocate the Garden across the street from the park, to a larger, 39-acre site with greater accessibility to the local community. Of the original plantings taken from its World’s Fair site, three Blue Atlas Cedars frame a majestic tree gate sculpture at the Garden’s Main Street entrance today, through which some 300,000 visitors pass annually.22

Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky is a museum consultant and the former director of marketing and communications at Queens Botanical Garden (QBG), in Flushing, New York. She continues to research Gardens on Parade and QBG ‘s history, and welcomes your thoughts at daisyMAT22 at aol.com. The author thanks GCA archivist Edie Loening and GCA historian Nancy Vincent for sharing Mrs. Pratt’s scrapbook, which provided the photos and inspiration for this article.

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS ARE FROM MRS. PRATT’S ALBUM IN THE GCA ARCHIVE. PHOTOGRAPHS MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.

 

Endnotes

1. Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day,” 13 June 1940, United Feature Syndicate, Inc. Prepared by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University. <http://www.gwu.edu/-erpapers/myday/>

2. Arthur Bartlett, “She Wanted Flowers,” New York Herald Tribune, 9 April 1939.

3. Mary Watts, “Noted Woman Amateur Gardener Heads World’s Fair Garden Project” New York Sun, 2 June 1938.

4. Welwyn is today a 204-acre nature preserve managed by Nassau County Parks, Recreation and Museums. The mansion is home to the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. The outbuildings are deteriorated, and the tennis court is overgrown. Several of Mrs. Pratt’s once sumptuous gardens are modestly maintained. Mrs. Pratt died in 1969.

5. Betty Monkman, “The White House Collection Research Sources in the Office of the Curator,” White House Historical Association, <http://www.whitehousehistory .org/08/08_b09.html>

6. Ibid.

7. Arthur Bartlett, “She Wanted Flowers.”

8. M.C. Gregory, memo to Mr. Morrisey , 4 March 1937. The New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division is the repository for the New York World ‘s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records, 1935-1945 (bulk 1936-1940). <http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/spe/rbk/faids/nywf39fa .pdf>

9. Emma Bugbee, “Mrs. Harold Pratt Plans Mosaic of ‘Gardens on Parade’ for Fair”, New York Herald Tribune, 2 May 1938.

10. Mrs. Harold Irving Pratt, foreword to Gardens on Parade, The Horticultural Exhibition at the New York World ‘s Fair 1939 by Hortus, Incorporated (Chicago: John A. Servas), 3.

11. Harriet Barnes Pratt, letter to Grover Whalen, president, New York World’s Fair 1939 Incorporated , 3 August 1939.

12. Harriet Barnes Pratt, letter to Grover Whalen, 13 February [1939?].

13. Jan Pratt, interview with Nancy Vincent, Garden Club of America, New York, NY, 25 August 2008.

14. Arthur Bartlett, “She Wanted Flowers.”

15. Eugene du Bois, “Building the Fair,” (date and publication unknown).

16. “Facts and Figures on ‘Gardens on Parade,’ the Horticultural Exhibition, New York World’s Fair 1939.” Press release issued by Hortus, Inc. [1938 or 1939].

17. Hortus, Incorporated, Gardens on Parade, The Horticultural Exhibition at the New York World’s Fair 1939, 41. The 100-page souvenir guide was issued for 25 cents and included a map with key, photos, and detailed descriptions of all the gardens, their creators, and contributors. It also contained flower show listings, ads, garden club activities, information on sponsoring organizations, committee listings, and the names of Hortus, Incorporated charter members. An 82-page souvenir guide was published for the 1940 season, and was available for ten cents.

18. Ibid., 23-24. See also Hortus, Incorporated, Gardens on Parade, The Horticultural Exhibition at the World’s Fair of 1940 in New York (privately printed, [1940]), 27.

19. Hortus, Incorporated, Gardens on Parade, The Horticultural Exhibition at the World’s Fair of 1940 in New York, 18, 80. The Men’s Garden Club of New York was established in late 1939,
and did not have an exhibit at Gardens on Parade that year.

20. . Aline Kate Fox and Mrs. George Coggill, letter to Mrs. Harold Irving Pratt, 16 January 1941.

21. Mary Watts, “Gardens on Parade to Stay,” New York Sun, 20 May 1939. This story was also reported by the New York Times and other publications. Earlier information about post-Fair plans for a park at Flushing Meadows included mention of a children’s garden or Farm Gardens cultivated by youngsters, “where field studies in horticulture and gardening will be carried on in individual plots.” See New York Advancing, World ‘s Fair Edition, edited by Rebecca B. Rankin (New York: The Publishers Printing Company, 1939), 249-250.

22. Gardens on Parade’s designs and theme gardens were recreated in part at Queens Botanical Garden when QBG was relocated in 1961. A fan-shaped area with radiating paths in the Main Garden features a Cherry Circle and lawn, designed after the Havemeyer Tribute Garden, the Charles G. Perkins Memorial Rose Garden, a Woodland Garden, Backyard Gardens with pergolas, and a pinetum, as well as other garden additions. Three rectangular lawns along an Oak Allee recall the formal arrangement of the pools from the Water Garden exhibit, and an adjacent Herb Garden is filled with plants used for dye, fragrance, cooking, and medicinal purposes.