A polite war of words — well, a mostly polite war of words — broke out in Judge Kenneth W. Salinger’s 10th-floor courtroom in Suffolk Superior Court on Tuesday.
The proceeding was dense, plodding, and riveting only for people who get their thrills from the minutiae of law books and legal footnotes.
But if you listened carefully, beneath it all, you could hear something more profound going on. There is a battle raging between the head and the heart of Boston Children’s Hospital.
The long-running and emotional dispute over the future of the Prouty Garden moved from the court of public opinion to a court of law Tuesday afternoon.
The garden is a 23,000-square-foot slice of verdant serenity tucked up and away from the bustle of the Longwood medical complex. It was a gift to the hospital and named in memory of author Olive Higgins Prouty’s daughters. Opened in 1956, it was designed by the famous Olmsted Brothers landscape architectural firm.
The hospital once promised the garden would exist as long there were patients, families, and staff to enjoy it. No more.
Children’s Hospital is ready to bulldoze the home of a soaring dawn redwood tree and decorative fountains to make room for a suite of private rooms, a heart center, and a new neonatal intensive care unit.
Opponents, including some of the hospital’s most prominent physicians, have been on red alert for weeks now as rumors have circulated that contractors with chainsaws will show up early some weekend morning to begin the demolition.
Children’s, in a legal filing that was part of Tuesday’s hearing, made it clear that the garden will not close until an ongoing review by the state Department of Public Health is concluded.
But that promise held no comfort to some stern-faced people in the back of the courtroom, stakeholders for whom the issue is deeply personal and wounding.
That would include Gus Murby. His 17-year-old son died in the garden on a Sunday morning eight Septembers ago after a courageous fight against leukemia.
When I spoke to him after Tuesday’s hearing, he said he and a group of a dozen or so other garden supporters have been holding early-morning weekend vigils at the hospital. They’ve been keeping an eye out for workers bearing chainsaws.
“I think the hospital’s top executives and the chairman of the board are so far into this project now that they can’t see how they can get off this track they’ve set themselves on,’’ Murby told me. “The hospital is trying to address new needs, and the only way they know how to do it is by building a new building.’’
They should build it somewhere else. The Prouty Garden is sacred ground. It’s been consecrated by children who died at Children’s Hospital, kids whose families scattered their ashes in the place they struggled for life.
One of those children was David Horton, who died at Children’s at age 12 after he endured 13 operations. A brain tumor patient, he died in 1973 just before his 13th birthday.
His sister, Elizabeth Richter, was there on a cold February evening when his ashes were placed in the garden he loved. She sat near Murby in the back of the courtroom on Tuesday.
Her brother’s resting place is now being temporarily sectioned off by a fence so that boring samples can be collected to prepare for the construction the hospital hopes will begin soon.
“When they put a chain-link fence around that garden, they take away my ability to sit in the place where my brother’s ashes are scattered,’’ Richter said, as lawyers filed out of the courtroom. “There’s a fence between me and my brother now. That’s outrageous.’’
I wanted to ask Boston Children’s Hospital lawyers about all of this. But they waved off reporters who approached them after the hour-long hearing.
To hear Children’s administration tell it, this world-class institution, one of the best of its kind on the planet, has nowhere else to grow but in Mrs. Prouty’s garden.
What a shame.