by Pete Mazzaccaro
In 1990, Morris Arboretum’s board of directors had set out to replace its executive director, William Klein. Klein had guided the arboretum from a run-down and neglected facility to an up-and-coming place of potential – one with a master plan and an ambition to become one of the great institutions in Philadelphia.
Paul Meyer was the arboretum’s director of horticulture – a job he had held since 1976. He liked the job and wasn’t interested in the hard work the new director was going to have to take on. The arboretum’s finances were challenging. Layoffs were certain. When asked about taking over for Klein, he declined.
The board made him a staff representative on the search committee, which found a candidate, negotiated a deal after a 6-month search, only to have the candidate change his mind and back out. Rather than go through another long process, the board asked Meyer to reconsider.
“I realized the past was the past. Although I liked my job, I had no way of knowing what it would be like under a new person,” Meyer said. “I had a plan that I thought would balance the budget and get us on the right path. So I said yes. Two days later the deal was done. And in two weeks I was doing all the difficult things that needed to be done to right size the staff and balance the budget.”
Today, Meyer is marking 25 years as the arboretum’s F. Otto Hass Executive Director and 40th year at the Northwest Philadelphia garden that has grown tremendously in stature during Meyer’s time. He’s seen the arboretum transform from an overgrown public garden to a destination that brings well over 130,000 visitors a year to see its collection, its garden railway, “Out on a Limb” tree canopy exhibit and countless classes and lectures.
Growing up green
Meyer grew up in a Cincinnati suburb where his introduction to botany was tending to his parents’ and grandparents’ flower and vegetable gardens. It was also a neighborhood where his earliest forays into business were as a local landscaper.
“We weren’t a well-to-do family. If I wanted money I had to work for it,” Meyer said. “I went out and pushed a lawnmower for neighbors. If they needed help planting annuals and vegetable gardens, I did that.”
Meyer said the gardens of his parents and his grandparents really helped drive his interest in gardening as well. His parents subscribed to gardening and landscaping magazines that he devoured in his teens. And both his parents and grandparents, who kept a small orchard of fruit trees in addition to a large vegetable garden, put Meyer to work as a gardener.
“It was nothing complicated, but I enjoyed it,” he said.
When it came time to go to college, Meyer enrolled at nearby Ohio State university. But at the time, it had not yet occurred to him that his interest in gardening was a viable career choice. So he chose engineering as a major.
Engineering was only so interesting to Meyer and at the end of freshman year, looking through course catalog, he discovered botany. It intrigued him enough to consider the subject as a major.
“I visited one of the professors and in the course of the conversation, it came up that I was looking for a summer job, and he was looking for someone to work at the university arboretum,” he said. “And that was that. The course was set.”
Abroad and back
Meyer began his sophomore year as a horticulture major and turned his studies full time to plants. After graduation, though, he would head out to expand his education even further, earning a position for the summer at Hillier’s Gardens and Arboretum in Winchester, England.
“I was looking through books of English gardens and thought, wouldn’t it be nice to go to England,” Meyer said. “Encouraged by my professors, I wrote to Harold Hillier.”
Harold Hillier, a leading horticulturist who was knighted in 1971 for his work in the field, hired Meyer.
“I worked for peanuts,” he said. “I went partly to experience another culture. But also, England is the motherload of gardens. It has a long history of garden design and horticulture. They have a climate where they can grow a rich diversity of plants.”
Meyer completed his time in Europe with a stint at a garden in Hildesheim, Germany, before coming back to the states to enter the University of Delaware’s Longwood Graduate Program at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Penn.
It was at Longwood where Meyer would make connections to people affiliated with the Morris Arboretum, which at the time was not nearly as well known a public garden as it is today.
“I did my thesis on Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia and befriended staff members at the Morris Arboretum,” Meyers said. “I knew the Morris’ manager and the curator. When the curator took a job at Harvard University, I was encouraged to apply.”
Meyer said he took the job as curator intending to follow the same path as his predecessor: learn the work at a good, just-out-of-college job and move on to a more prestigious institution, like Harvard.
Early days at Morris
When Meyer arrived at Morris to begin work as Curator and Director of Horticulture, the arboretum was a place with a rich collection of plants, but lacking in all but the most basic maintenance. Although it had been set up by the estate of John and Lydia Morris in the ‘30s to be a public garden, it was not drawing visitors.
“At the time the Arboretum was the responsibility of The University of Pennsylvania’s botany department,” Meyer said. “It was run the entire time by Penn professors in a part-time capacity. It really needed was full time management.”
Enter Arboretum board member Otto Haas, who planned greater things for the Arboretum, hiring Bill Klein and driving a master planning process that set a roadmap to bring the Arboretum from the backwater of public gardens to a real public institution.
“During the 80s we built the new driveway, the sustainable parking lot,” Meyer said of the early work on improvements. “We built the education center at the existing carriage house and began restoring features in the arboretum one at a time. It was all part of this master plan we had created. In 1978, we thought it was a 10-year plan. Today, we’re still working on it. What takes time is raising the money. It’s easy to do the work, but for every project we do, we need one or two gifts to fund the work.”
In that time, Meyer found his job challenging and changing at a pace that kept his interest in what he was doing fresh. The desire to head out to a more prestigious institution waned. From taking over as director and guiding the Arboretum over the last 26 years, he’s found plenty of reason to remain engaged.
“I didn’t have to move to another institution, the institution came here,” he said.
New era for Arboretum
Although Klein had done a great deal of the groundwork for getting the Morris Arboretum into the shape it needed to be in, it was still a long way off from being a world class institution, which Meyer said he and his staff believed would be realized when it finally drew 100,000 visitors a year. As the ‘90s came to a close in Meyer’s first years in charge, attendance was growing but only by a few thousand visitors a year at an average of a little above 30,000.
On a trip with staff to New York’s Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, Meyer met Paul Busse, the coordinator of the gardens’ model railway, which had become a big hit.
“So I came back and started talking to my board about the Garden Railway,” Meyer said. “At first, they thought I needed my head examined. Garden Railway sounded like a train that you ride around the arboretum. That’s not who we are. Eventually, they agreed to give it a try.”
It opened to great fanfare and in one year, the arboretum’s annual attendance doubled.
“That was a real turning point,” Meyer said. “Not only in numbers but also in demographics. We went from an older, female crowd to a family-oriented, cross-generational crowd. You come here now, you can see parents with strollers and their grandparents.”
Since that opening in 1999, The Morris Arboretum has continued to grow. After the opening of the “Out on a Limb” tree top exhibit, attendance finally passed Meyer’s goal and is now more than 130,000 annually.
As he enters his fifth decade in charge of the Morris Arboretum, Meyer is still enthusiastic about the future of the institution. Not resting on the laurels of its recent success, Meyer said he and his staff are planning for the next big thing: an education center with room for larger groups.
A recent talk by bestselling author Andrew Wulf sold out the Ambler Theater. It shows, Meyer said, that the demand for what the Arboretum does is still greater than the facilities it has. And it’s not just about the attractions like the Garden Railway. People come for education programs and research.
And Meyer continues to earn new accolades for both himself and the Arboretum. Earlier this month, he was recognized with Montgomery County’s 2016 Planning Advocate Award for his work at the arboretum and for Springfield Township’s Planning Commission.
“Paul Meyer is a perfect example of how good leaders can inspire and then realize community goals,” said Jody L. Holton, AICP, and executive director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.
Asked about why he thinks the Arboretum has been so successful, he credits the institution and the people who continue to visit and drive interest in the arboretum and everything it does, from events like the Cherry Blossom Festival to its lecture series and multitude of continuing education courses.
“The institution is always growing and always changing,” he said. “My job is always changing. I never felt the need to go do something new somewhere else, because there’s always new things to do here.”
Pete Mazzaccaro can be reached at 215-248-8802 and firstname.lastname@example.org.