Updated: Dec 1, 2021
River Farm's gates have been closed to the public for the last year, starting after its headquartered non-profit, the American Horticultural Society (AHS), placed it on the market for sale last October. After a tumultuous year in which the venerable property could easily have been lost forever, on November 1, the AHS board, staff, volunteers, community stakeholders, and the Save River Farm Committee celebrated the reopening of this Northern Virginia landmark once owned by George Washington.
"The first person I really want to acknowledge is Keister Evans, who was the former AHS director who was here when Enid Haupt donated the $1 million so that River Farm could become headquarters for AHS," said AHS board member Tim Conlin during the ceremony.
Evans served as a leader of the Save River Farm Committee, a grassroots citizen-driven campaign that we at the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT) were proud to lead.
NVCT began the Save River Farm campaign because protecting the unique property was synonymous with our mission to preserve land with natural, historical, and cultural value. The committee was comprised of community stakeholders, AHS donors and volunteers disappointed in the decision to sell, and NVCT staff, including Executive Director Alan Rowsome.
Senator Scott Surovell, an early supporter of the Save River Farm effort, took the time to recognize the AHS staff, board, and community members for their work in protecting the property, which was the site of his wedding 22 years ago. Surovell also personally thanked NVCT Executive Director and Save River Farm Committee chair Alan Rowsome. "Alan Rowsome has been a huge asset in this fight, coming up with creative ideas," Senator Surrovell said.
Rowsome explained NVCT's role in saving River Farm and why the conservation organization found it essential to protect it from being sold to developers.
"About a year ago, I stalked around this property with Greg Meyer, our Director of Philanthropy, and felt like I was trespassing. It was still open, and yet it didn't feel like it, and about three days later, it closed," Rowsome said.
"We sat out on that bench and looked out and said how are we going to protect this place? Do we have the resources? Can we do it? And everything came together in an amazing way."
Rowsome committed to converting the Save River Farm Campaign and its committee's effort to support AHS's mission to get River Farm back to operating as intended.
"The Save River Farm Committee is now your Friends of River Farm, and we are ready to help you in any way possible... I can say, just in the last couple of weeks, we've had some very productive conversations about permanent protection of this property, and I'm excited to have those continue."
Over the past year, AHS' board split into two factions, pro-sale and pro-protection. The pro-sale contingent of the AHS board resigned in late September, ending the year-long battle over the future of the legendary property, hopefully once and for all.
"We always knew we could always count on you. We were working internally inside the board, but we knew that there were so many of you on the outside and relentless... I think together that brought us through," said AHS board member Laura Dowling.
Dowling was one of the five board members who opposed the sale, remaining steadfast in keeping River Farm protected and remaining the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society. Board member Marcia Zech and her husband donated $1 million to AHS during the event, recognizing that financial support will be essential to jumpstarting AHS's leap into the future.
"We have decided to make a gift of $1 million to the American Horticultural Society," Zech said, garnering a standing ovation.
Fairfax County Supervisor Dan Storck, who has also been a fierce supporter of River Farm's future, thanked the AHS board, who he dubbed "The Faithful Five" for never wavering from its mission to keep the property the headquarters of their organization.
"I'm going to start by thanking 'The Faithful Five'," said Supervisor Storck. Storck had long supported the Save River Farm effort and urged for protections at the county level. Storck also spoke candidly on what remains at stake, emphasizing that the property will need additional protections to ensure this never happens again.
"I know we have more to do. This property isn't protected yet; I'm sorry, it's not. But, I know that the commitment is clear, and I'm here to finish the job with all of you, and I know that we'll do that," Storck said.