A century of gardening and glamour


In the spring of 1914, a group of horticulture enthusiasts from New York were seeking headquarters for their newly-formed International Garden Club when they stumbled upon a dilapidated property in the Pelham Bay Park Area. 

Though it had fallen into disrepair, the group saw a future in the Grecian-style grey stone mansion, built in the late 1830s by New York businessman Robert Bartow. 

A century later, the Bartow-Pell Mansion — now a designated city landmark and museum with gardens and landscapes open to the public — is celebrating its centennial. This past weekend, the Bartow-Pell Conservancy held a Moonlight Ball celebrating 100 years. The event honored Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and noted preservationist Frank Emile Sanchis III.

“We could actually have a centennial for the next couple years,” joked Ellen Bruzelius, executive director at the museum not far from Orchard Beach. She noted a number of milestones that took place after the International Garden Club leased the building from the city.

Socialite Zelia Hoffman, born Krumbhaar Preston, was instrumental to the lease. She served as the club’s president from 1914 to 1921.

A book called The Herbaceous Garden, by British plant connoisseur Alice Martineau, inspired Ms. Hoffman and a number of horticulturally-inclined friends to form their club. Crossing the Atlantic from England, Ms. Martineau’s’ stated purpose for a trip and lecture series was “increasing interest in fine gardening among wealthy society people.”

Her trip was a success. Ms. Hoffman was able to convince a list of 400 friends, including the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and the Van Cortlandts, to serve as members and patrons of the Garden Club. At its start, club members could spend the night at the mansion and were allowed to use the house and its library. 

In exchange for the lease from the city, members of the club vowed to renovate the dilapidated building and its grounds, investing approximately $100,000 between them for the restoration of the house and the construction of gardens.

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