The Acacia Chronicle: Joseph Widener, Thomas Roland, and the United States Botanic Garden


1934 Philadelphia Flower Show. Widener Acacia Exhibit. In the Philadelphia Flower Show Collection. McLean Library and Archives. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

First publicly exhibited in 1833 in the United States by Alexander Parker of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, acacias were the finicky darlings of those few East Coast collectors who were able to provide proper conservatory housing and employ a gardening staff with enough time and expertise to bring them to bloom in mid-winter. The reward for such labor were plants ranging from small delicate shrubs to trees reaching 15 feet or more and described in 1913 as “elegant of graceful habit with flowers of pale yellow borne in great quantities of short racemes.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Joseph E. Widener Acacia Collection had few rivals. The core of Widener’s extensive collection dates to 1916 with his purchase of 118 plants -- extravagantly described in the Boston Globe as the “Finest Acacias in the World” -- from Thomas Roland of Nahant, Massachusetts.  This online exhibit traces the complicated history of the Widener Acacia Collection from the 1916 purchase, its exhibition at the Philadelphia Flower Show and the National Gallery of Art, through to its ultimate demise under the stewardship of the United States Botanic Garden by mid-century.


Augustus John. Joseph E. Widener, 1921. Widener Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; [Thomas Roland] Thomas Roland Collection. Nahant Historical Society, Nahant, Massachusetts.


"A Portion of Thomas Roland's Notable Acacias and Ericas at the National Show this Week" Florists' Review. March 30, 1916.

The March 1916 National Flower Show held in Philadelphia and organized by the Society of American Florists and Ornamental Horticulturists, was sponsored by 10 other Philadelphia and national organizations including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The show attracted large numbers of visitors and was judged a success despite citing Convention Hall, at Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue, as “entirely inadequate” to accommodate the exhibition and two days lost revenue owing to the Philadelphia city ordinance forbidding entertainments charging an admission fee on Sunday. During the run of the show, the press covered Sweet Pea Day, Carnation Day, Rose Day, New York Day -- and the sale of a Massachusetts acacia exhibit to a Philadelphia collector.

An article in the Boston Globe describes Thomas Roland's sale of his acacia exhibit to Joseph Widener during the National Flower Show:

 … Mr. Widener saw the collection and decided that he must have it for his conservatories at Lynnewood Hall, Ogontz. When Mr. Roland returned to his hotel, he found four telephone messages and a wire urging him to meet with Mr. Widener at his office. The latter informed him that there were four acacias in his collection that he would like to buy. Mr. Roland replied that the four in question were only for sale as part of the collection, whereupon Mr. Widener offered about $5000 for the 118 plants and he accepted. …Boston Globe, April 9, 1916

The Roland-Widener acacia story continued to surface in the press from time to time typically during the run of the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, with this final entry in 1940 told by garden writer and columnist Helen Van Pelt Wilson:

 … When William Kleinheinz, who was Chief Horticulturist for Mr. Widener at the time, heard of the purchase of this marvelous collection, he went to Mr. Widener and anxiously inquired, “What are we going to do with them? We have no house sufficiently equipped to house these Acacias.” “We’ll build one then!” replied Mr. Widener, and build one they did, bringing to Philadelphia a horticultural treasure that attracts visitors each year from Baltimore, Boston, and New York that they may share with us a collection that, owing to Mr. Widener’s civic pride, has been kept in Philadelphia. … -- “Our Gardens Within and Without. The Philadelphia Flower Show” The Morning Post (Camden, New Jersey) March 11, 1940

It should be noted that although Thomas Roland sold his 1916 National Flower Show exhibit, he continued to maintain, nurture and exhibit his acacias at the Boston Flower Show every year until his death in 1929. The Widener acacias debuted at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 1930, and, for a decade, the collection performed as the messa di voce of the Show. The Widener acacias made their last appearance at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 1940.


1935 Philadelphia Flower Show. Beatrice Fenton Nereid Fountain framed by the Widener Acacia Collection. Philadelphia Flower Show Collection. McLean Library and Archives. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


1935 Philadelphia Flower Show. Central Feature with Widener Acacia Collection and Hyacinths. Philadelphia Flower Show Collection. McLean Library and Archives. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

On December 30, 1940, Colonel Harry A. McBride, Administrator of the National Gallery of Art, and William A. Frederick representing the United States Botanic Garden, traveled to Lynnewood Hall to meet with head gardener, Arthur Hauenstein, concerning a proposed gift of the Widener Acacia Collection to the National Gallery of Art.

 … At 2 o’clock, I met Doctor Frederick, Head of the U.S. Botanic Gardens, at the office of the Widener Estate in the Land Title Building. We were driven to Elkins Park and spent about two hours in going through the greenhouses and giving careful study to the collection of acacias, which Mr. Widener plans to give to the National Gallery or the Botanical Gardens for the use of the National Gallery during the blooming period. There were several hundred of these plants, ranging in height from about 15 ft. down to 2 or 3 ft. It was found that as it was planned to use those plants for the opening of the National Gallery, which will take place near the end of March, there might be difficulty in holding back the blooming that long. Doctor Frederick suggested it would be better to leave them at Elkins Park until just before they were to be used in the Gallery and then to bring them down in trucks. Doctor Frederick and I also spent an hour viewing the Widener Collection, which is to come down to the National Gallery. … -- H.A. McBride. Report on Trip to Philadelphia, December 30-31, 1940. Widener Collection Files. National Gallery of Art

Joseph Widener made his formal offer on January 30, 1941, to gift his entire collection of acacias to the United States Botanic Garden, a portion of which would serve as decoration of the garden courts to celebrate the dedication and opening of the National Gallery of Art. On February 27, 1941, David Lynn, Architect of the Capitol, accepted the gift on behalf of the United States Botanic Garden and the National Gallery of Art.

Arrangements were made for the transport of 588 Widener acacias by heated truck from Lynnewood Hall to the National Gallery and the Botanic Garden. On March 11, 1941, William Frederick and Noel D. Smith, the gardener for the National Gallery, met the trucks and selected those plants destined for the garden courts at the National Gallery and those to be delivered to the Botanic Garden. 

 … Head Gardener, Arthur Hauenstein, who had worked for the Widener family for 40 years, was said to have wept as the trucks of acacias rolled down the driveway. -- Evans et al, The Philadelphia Flower Show, 2014


Telegram. “Three Trucks On Way Arrive Washington 2:30,” March 10, 1941. Widener Files. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, Gallery Archives.


Acacia Installation at the National Gallery, 1941. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, Gallery Archives. Image appeared in the American Horticultural Magazine. 47 (3): 301.

… Before we opened the Gallery, the Widener estate [Lynnewood Hall] up in Philadelphia, in addition to giving a lot of paintings to the Gallery, they also donated their collection of acacias. We went to Philadelphia and arranged for transportation of those. When [President] Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Gallery on March 17th most of them were in the west garden court because the east garden court was blocked off and nobody could get in there. They had a ramp for his wheelchair. From then on we were supposed to maintain the acacias over at the Botanic Garden, but it turned out that they didn’t have very many facilities to handle them, so after a year or two they were about all gone. … – Transcript. Interview with Noel D. Smith, 1990. Archives. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

“Acacias” are listed in the Architect of the Capitol reports of publicly exhibited plants at least to 1950. However, the Widener Collection was not the only acacia collection acquired by the Botanic Garden in the early forties – it joined an acacia collection described as “probably the finest in the world” purchased by the Garden in 1940. David Lynn and William Frederick requested and were granted a special appropriation discounted to $3500 in 1939 to purchase this important though unnamed collection of acacias in Massachusetts:

Mr. Rabaut. Mr. Frederick, are these acacias rare plants? Mr. Frederick. They are very rare. Mr. Rabaut. Are there very many collections of acacias other than the one to which you referred? Mr. Frederick. There are only three that are outstanding, to my knowledge. Mr. Rabaut. And where are those collections? Mr. Frederick. There is one collection at the Widener estate, in the suburbs of Philadelphia; there is one at the du Pont estate, Wilmington, Del.; and there is this collection that I mentioned in the State of Massachusetts. Mr. Rabaut. How would this collection to which you have referred compare with the other collections which you have mentioned? Mr. Frederick. It is outstanding. It is finer and it has a great many more varieties. … -- Representative Louis C. Rabaut (Michigan), David Lynn and William A. Frederick. 1939. "Collection of Acacias". Legislative Establishment Appropriation Bill. Hearings Before Subcommittee on Appropriations ... Seventy-Sixth Congress, First Session … Appropriation Bill for 1940


United States Botanic Garden. Interior [between 1940 and 1950] Theodor Horydczak Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.


Bennett, Parsons & Frost, Architects, volume 2. United States Botanic Garden. Conservatory. [1933] William Edward Parsons Papers. Newberry Library. Chicago, Illinois.

The United States Botanic Garden, beginning in 1941, held for some time, if not two of the most outstanding acacia collections in the United States, then certainly the most expensive -- the Massachusetts collection of 156 plants was valued at $70,000 and the Widener Collection at $100,000. The Widener Acacias are mentioned once more at the 1951 House Appropriations hearings after which they disappear from the public record.

Mr. Stefan. Some years ago, Mr. Frederick, somebody gave to the government some very rare plants. I cannot recall the name, but they were very rare plants. Mr. Frederick. Back in the early history of the Botanical Garden in 1820? Mr. Stefan. I think you came up and asked for permission to receive them. Mr. Frederick. That is right. That was in 1941. The Widener estate was the donor. Mr. Stefan. What were those? Mr. Frederick. Acacias. Mr. Stefan. How are they growing? Mr. Frederick. Very fine. Mr. Stefan. They apparently attract national attention. Mr. Frederick. Yes, they are very fine plants. – Representative Karl Stefan (Nebraska) and William A. Frederick. 1951. “Acacias”. Legislative branch appropriations for 1951: hearings before the subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, Eighty-first Congress, first session.

The Botanic Garden's formal narrative history -- for the years between 1933, when the Bennett, Parsons, and Frost-designed Conservatory opened, and 1960, when long-deferred maintenance and expansion of the Garden began again -- is at best incomplete. At the legislative appropriations hearing of 1959, J. George Stewart, Architect of the Capitol, described decades-long neglect of the buildings and grounds belonging to the Botanic Garden. The Conservatory needed repairs to its ventilation and lighting systems, replacement of its failing composition roof, but most of all, replacement and repairs to elements of its electrical system that had "deteriorated to the point of where they are urgently in need of renewal." In addition, the structural members supporting the aluminum and glass frame had begun to rust as a result of 25 years of “constant moisture” in the Conservatory. He describes the 75-year-old greenhouses as “constituting a hazard to Botanic Garden employees as well as to the many tourists who are constantly visiting them” and despite “many alterations, repairs and remodeling of the past. They have reached the point of deterioration where they are beyond the repair stage.” Given those conditions, it is doubtful that the two acacia collections had much chance of survival.

Of the three outstanding collections described by William Frederick in 1939, the du Pont acacia collection at Longwood Gardens is the only survivor. Planted between 1919 and 1921,  the Longwood Gardens Acacia Passage blooms every year in late January and early February. The identification mystery of the 1940 purchase by the United States Botanic Garden of the acacia collection described as “probably the finest in the world” from an unnamed estate in Massachusetts has yet to be solved.


[Acacia Passage. Winter] Larry Albee. Orchid Extravaganza. Image courtesy of Longwood Gardens. Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.


Bennett, Parsons & Frost, Architects, volume 2. United States Botanic Garden. Conservatory. [1933] William Edward Parsons Papers. Newberry Library. Chicago, Illinois.

Further Reading

Benson, Albert Emerson. 1929. History of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Norwood, Mass: Plimpton Press.

Boyd, James. 1929. A history of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society: 1827-1927. Philadelphia, Pa: Soc.

Chandler, S.R., 1913. “Acacias and Their Culture.” The Gardeners’ Chronicle of America.

Evans, Janet, Drew Becher, and Sam Lemheney. 2014. The Philadelphia Flower Show. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Pub.

Fallen, Anne-Catherine. (2007). A Botanic Garden for the Nation: The United States Botanic Garden. US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Interview with Noel D. Smith, 1990. Transcript. National Gallery of Art. Archives. Washington, D.C.

Novy, Ari, 2014. “Botanic Garden Profile: The United States Botanic Garden”. Sibbaldia. 14: 15-35

Smith, Noel D. 1943. "Horticulture Among the Old Masters". American Horticultural Magazine. 47 (3): 301-309.

Solit, Karen. 1993. History of the United States Botanic Garden, 1816-1991. Washington: [U.S. G.P.O.].

"Thomas Roland (1863-1929)". Transactions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for the Year 1930.

United States. 1939-1958. Legislative establishment appropriation bill, [fiscal years] 1940-1959: hearings before subcommittee in charge of legislative establishment appropriation bill for ... Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.

United States. [1940-1958]. Report of the Architect of the Capitol. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.

Widener, Peter Arrell Brown. 1940. Without Drums ... Illustrated. [An autobiography. With portraits.]. G.P. Putnam's Sons: New York.


[National Gallery of Art. Garden Court] Detail. [1941] Courtesy of National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC. Gallery Archives.

Generous support for this exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities CARES Act.

The Acacia Chronicle: Joseph Widener, Thomas Roland, and the United States Botanic Garden