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Group rallies to save cherished spot at Children’s Hospital

Prouty Garden has been a favorite of patients at Boston Children’s Hospital since it opened in 1956.
Prouty Garden has been a favorite of patients at Boston Children’s Hospital since it opened in 1956.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File)

It is hallowed ground where generations of ailing children have found strength, where a few have been brought to die or have their ashes scattered in the shade of a majestic dawn redwood tree.

Now, just ahead of a wrecking ball, a contingent of parents and caregivers want the city to bestow protective landmark status on Prouty Garden, a half-acre splash of green at the heart of Boston Children’s Hospital. It may be their last hope for preserving the emerald retreat.

After 2½ years of bureaucracy and public hearings, hospital administrators have city approval to bulldoze the garden and replace it with an 11-story building. The $1.2 billion project, administrators say, will provide space desperately needed for the hospital’s core mission of saving the lives of children.

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In this preservation battle, there are no villains.

Prouty advocates have petitioned the Boston Landmarks Commission, saying the garden has a history beyond its recuperative power for thousands of patients since it opened in 1956.

“They have a treasure,” said Anne Gamble, a longtime volunteer at Children’s Hospital whose husband, Walter, served there for three decades as a pediatric cardiologist. “It can’t be moved. It can’t be replaced.”

Hospital administrators point to the current neonatal intensive-care unit, where 24 bassinets are separated by curtains and sleepy parents are offered a fold-out chair large enough for a single adult. In the new building, the unit for tiny newborns will have 30 individual rooms with futon-like beds that can accommodate two parents.

“I’m a great believer in green space as a healing method for children,” said Charles Weinstein, chief of real estate at Children’s Hospital. “But when I compare the needs of the hospital and the needs of a million kids who are going to get treated here over the next 100 years, it doesn’t seem to me to be equivalent.”

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The design for the new building includes a smaller outdoor garden, a rooftop garden, and terraces on each patient floor. Taken as a whole, there will be more green space than exists, administrators contend. But none of the new gardens or terraces will be the size of Prouty Garden, a space large enough to find solitude in a shaded corner while children splash in the fountain.

Doctors rushed Shelley Senai’s newborn to Children’s because she was born with a serious intestinal condition. Senai and her husband moved into the hospital, holding vigil in the neonatal intensive-care unit and sleeping in the cramped double rooms the hospital plans to eliminate with the new building.

The survival of their daughter, Juniper, after 101 days in the hospital was testament to the power of state-of-the-art medicine. But they also credit her recovery to Prouty Garden, where they lolled in the grass and shared chicken dinners in an oasis a little larger than the Fenway Park infield with manicured grass, meandering paths, and playful sculptures of a squirrel, owl, and fox.

“It was the only place we could go and feel like a normal family,” said Senai, who is spearheading the movement to save the garden. “We completely support the need for a new clinical building. We just feel that there are other ways to go about it.”

Advocates know saving the garden will be a long shot: The Landmarks Commission recently rejected a petition to protect a notable building that will be torn down as part of the expansion, recognizing the space constraints and needs at Children’s Hospital. The city has never granted landmark status to an interior courtyard like Prouty Garden. But there does not appear to be anything that would prohibit the commission from protecting the space, and that gives people hope.

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The commission is scheduled to hold a preliminary hearing at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday in Room 900 at City Hall. The petition could be rejected, which would allow construction to start next year. The commission could also initiate a formal study of the garden, which could take months or years and delay construction.

To become a landmark, a property must first receive a two-thirds vote of the commission. It must then be approved by the City Council and Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who as a boy found refuge in the garden, eating ice cream, watching clowns perform, and forgetting, if just for a moment, that he was stricken with cancer.

Walsh was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma at age 7. He spent four years in and out of Children’s Hospital and described Prouty Garden as a sanctuary from wards crowded with as many as eight children.

“It was the only place where as a kid you could get outside,” Walsh recalled last week.

Still, Walsh said he believes construction should go forward.

“I don’t think it should be landmarked,” Walsh said, adding, “I can see where the advocates for keeping the garden are coming from, but it’s also about the advancement of medicine and about the treatment of sick kids.”

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The garden was paid for and endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, a novelist who mentored Sylvia Plath . Modeled after a space at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Prouty Garden was designed by the sons of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Prouty lived in Brookline, and she and her husband, Lewis, made their gift after the death of two of her infant daughters. Her books included “Now, Voyager,” which became a 1942 film starring with Bette Davis , and “Stella Dallas,” which was adapted into a play, radio serial, and several movies, the last of which in 1990 featured Bette Midler .

At her alma mater, Smith College, Prouty created a scholarship that was given to Plath. The two became friends, and Prouty paid for Plath’s medical bills when she suffered a nervous breakdown. Plath used Prouty as the model for a character in her book “The Bell Jar.”

At Children’s Hospital, Prouty’s philanthropy originally supported two small pediatric wards, which were demolished to make way for a building. She then agreed to build the garden, flexibility that administrators say shows she understood the hospital’s evolving needs.

But the garden contains a plaque that reads: “Because of Mrs. Prouty’s vision, this garden will exist as long as Children’s Hospital has patients, families, and staff to enjoy it.”

Prouty’s grandson, W. Mason Smith III, leads the foundation that pays up to $50,000 annually to maintain the grass, azaleas, and tulips.

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As a retired hospital architect, Smith, who spoke as an individual and not on behalf of the family trust, said he understood the space constraints faced by Children’s and other medical institutions in the Longwood Medical Area. He expressed concern about the precedent of landmarking a private courtyard like the Prouty Garden and said he had been impressed by the hospital’s efforts to incorporate green space in the new building.

“Let’s do our very best,” Smith said, “to maintain the values that are found in the garden as we move on.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com.