New boss is in love with Bartram's Garden

Maitreyi Roy, new executive director of Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philadelphia, stands on a large stone where the property meets the Schuylkill.
Maitreyi Roy, new executive director of Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philadelphia, stands on a large stone where the property meets the Schuylkill. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 25, 2012

Maitreyi Roy, a senior vice president at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, uses buzzwords from the nonprofit world a lot, as in:

"If you don't have usership, you won't have stewardship."

But as she walks the mossy paths at Bartram's Garden, where she'll become the new executive director Thursday, a simpler expression of that sentiment tumbles out. "We need people to fall in love with this place," she says.

Roy, 49, is clearly besotted. Already familiar with the story of John Bartram, the nation's first botanist, she was drawn deeper into his legacy two years ago. With some other partners, PHS was working with Bartram's to set up a new greenhouse and a 3.5-acre organic farm on a former ball field and tennis court on its grounds.

"I'd been here many times but not with these eyes," Roy recalls. "My eyes just opened up to what an incredible asset this place is."

The Bartram homestead, comprising 45 acres on the banks of the Schuylkill in Southwest Philadelphia, was founded in 1728 and draws 39,000 visitors a year. Although it's the oldest surviving botanical garden in the country and a National Historic Landmark, it's forever being called "a hidden gem" and "a place with great potential."

Fact is, it's at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard - in a poor section of the city, next to a public-housing project - and it's not the easiest place to get to. "People still don't know it's here," says Roy, who will be working with a $1 million budget, $2.5 million endowment, 1,200 members, and 22 full- and part-time employees.

She's had many jobs at PHS, including 15 years with Philadelphia Green, the society's much-heralded urban greening initiative. Currently, as one of five senior VPs, Roy oversees planning and programs, such as the Plant One Million tree project, vacant land management, educational offerings, and storm water demonstration landscapes.

For the last five years, she's been raising money, a task usually linked to the sudden appearance of large beads of sweat on the forehead. But Roy is cool.

"I love fund-raising," she says, "especially when it's for a good purpose."

Roy was one of 60 applicants from the region and beyond for the Bartram's job. She and two other finalists each spent a full day with the garden staff and the board of the nonprofit John Bartram Association, which oversees the city-owned house and garden.

"In the end, we thought Maitreyi would hit the ground running," said board president Steven Bessellieu, citing, as an important factor, her "relationships and partnerships" with foundations, communities, PHS, University of Pennsylvania, City of Philadelphia, and others.

Roy, whose first name is pronounced MY'-tray and means friendship in Sanskrit, grew up in India, the middle child in a family that encouraged literary and creative pursuits. Her father, a linguist and college professor whose family runs a tea plantation in the state of Assam, founded The Sentinel, an English-language daily newspaper, in 1983. He remained the editor till his retirement in 2005.

Roy's mother, who played the sitar professionally for many years, became a speech pathologist and established a school for children with special needs. She was inspired by Roy's hearing-impaired brother, now a professional photographer.

Mother was the gardener, teaching her young daughter to graft bougainvillea and tend roses. Roy also studied painting, taught herself to do "very precise" botanical drawings, and "had a lot of interest in natural systems and building things, like secret tunnels from here to there."

Although Roy's parents hoped she'd become an engineer, she says she knew "at the most fundamental level that I wanted to build buildings and houses."

And so she studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi; there she met her husband, Avik Roy, now 50 and a business consultant. (They now live in Lawrence Township, N.J., and have two daughters - Mika, 24, a first-year law student at Columbia University, and Ruhi, 12.)

Soon, Roy's interest shifted from buildings to the spaces between them - and she realized that she wanted to work in the public realm rather than "be a consultant for design work for an exclusive audience."

Which brought her to the United States - to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where she got a master's in landscape architecture.

After graduation, she spent almost five years designing neighborhood parks for the city of Boston. Then in 1993, she was hired at PHS to work with the city on neighborhood park restoration, quickly learning that "if you want to improve the environment, you have to embrace community work."

That lesson will be invaluable in Roy's new job, suggests PHS president Drew Becher.

"I think Bartram's needs to interact with the community more and Maitreyi totally understands that," he says, crediting Roy, in her time at PHS, with playing "a major role in transforming the way Philadelphia looks and feels to its residents."

During the four-year tenure of Bartram director Louise Turan, who retired in March, community outreach was a priority. Besides the farm and greenhouse, there's a new orchard, berry patch and plant nursery; a redesigned visitor center and gift shop; and plans to connect Bartram's to the Schuylkill River Trail.

"Now we have community gardens, too, and people are actually coming there. That's pretty cool," Turan says.

It is, and Roy hopes to keep the momentum going. She's got her own going at the moment; we're headed down to the river to see the circular stone cider press carved by John Bartram himself.

Suddenly, Ally Crow appears.

She's 25, an artist from Kensington, taking notes and photos of the phlox, lobelia, and other wildflowers along the path. "I love it here," she tells Roy, "but most of the people in my neighborhood don't even know it's here."

Roy nods knowingly. "We need to invite people in," she says, "and they will fall in love with this place."


Maitreyi Roy shares her thoughts about Bartram's historic homestead on the Schuylkill at www.philly.com/ginny


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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