Progress is a funny thing.
This simple thought came to mind one recent afternoon within the walled confines of the Prouty Garden, a vast, tranquil, and singularly remarkable space between the disparate buildings that make up Boston Children’s Hospital.
Ancient trees soared toward a summer sky. Water splashed into a decorative fountain. Small, stone animals lurked within the shrubbery, waiting, as they have for decades, to be found by children toddling along the hardtop paths.
And a young boy, maybe 5, shrieked with joy as he tossed a helicopter into the air and watched it crash land in a bush. The boy had no hair, wore a hospital gown, and was hooked up to a medical device that towered over him by a good 2 feet.
Few people know about the Prouty Garden, owned by Children’s, endowed by the late writer Olive Prouty, and designed by the famed Olmsted Brothers firm. Among those who do, there may be no more meaningful place in Boston. Heart-breakingly young patients gulp the fresh air. Staff members take breaks from the relentless pressures of their jobs. Harried, worried parents seek tranquility and clarity amid the flowers and lawns.
And in the name of progress, this garden may come to an end.
A senior hospital official, noting that Children’s has clinical needs that far exceed its land in the dense Longwood medical area, acknowledged this week that the Prouty Garden is being considered as a potential site for new development.
“We are extraordinarily space-constrained,” said Margaret Coughlin, a Children’s Hospital senior vice president in charge of marketing and communications. “As we look at what we have to do to be a clinical and innovative leader, we have to look at all our space, and there is no new space in this area.
“To be the best pediatric hospital in the county, maybe the world, we have to look at all the areas in and around the campus,” Coughlin added.
No firm decisions have been made, Coughlin emphasized, and any actions would be a couple of years away. Still, the plan is far enough along for her to note that, should the Prouty Garden be redeveloped, hospital officials would open new green areas, probably on terraces and rooftops, that would be at least as large.
Word of the possible redevelopment began spreading through the hospital in the last several weeks, spurring 1,600-plus people to sign an online petition demanding that the Prouty Garden remain as it is. One nurse described the first and last stroller ride that parents of a terminally ill infant took through the garden. The mother of a 3-year-old cancer patient wrote of the hours that her son spent feeding the birds, “the brightest moment of every day.”
Carrie Palmer’s son, Max, a Children’s legend, spent 250 nights there one year battling neuroblastoma. Amid so much bad news, her family always awaited clearance from doctors so Max could search the garden for hidden statues.
“It was a sacred place,” Palmer said by phone Thursday, “the only place to spend time with him without people poking and intruding.”
Amid strong support for the garden, the frustration with hospital officials is mostly, though not entirely, muted. The leaders of a world class institution, where miracles are a daily event, don’t make for ideal antagonists. “We LOVE Children’s Hospital,” Palmer wrote in an e-mail.
W. Mason Smith III, Olive Prouty’s grandson and the president of the trust that bears her name, distributes about $40,000 to $50,000 annually to maintain the garden and has been warned that change may be coming. While he prefers that they add floors to the main building, he said, “I understand the dilemma.’’
The scenario seems almost inevitable. Children’s will get state-of-the-art space to conquer unimaginable diseases, while patients and parents could lose the garden where they faced their fears and nurtured hope. Progress always comes with a cost.