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A rare glimpse inside the manor

When the Massachusetts Horticultural Society opens the doors of the Cheney-Baltzell Manor House to the public this weekend for the first time in 10 years, it won't be displaying just the obsessive attention that went into the floral arrangements on display.

There's also the house itself.

These Cheneys are of gardening rather than hunting fame: Benjamin Pierce Cheney bought the property in 1874. The former stagecoach driver built a fortune in railroads and what became the American Express Co. Cheney helped found the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, but his arboreal distinctions do not include a family tree with a vice presidential branch. When he died, the property passed to his daughter, who replaced his wood Victorian house with a 43-room Georgian-style brick mansion designed by Alexander Jackson Davis , the architect behind the New York Public Library.

The manor house, a National Register site on the grounds of the Horticultural Society's Elm Bank property on Washington Street in Wellesley, is peeling and decrepit after decades of vacancy, but structurally sound and bearing the marks of Alice Cheney-Baltzell's taste and determination: hammered tin ceilings, parquet floors, music room, ballroom, and 14 marble fireplaces she imported from all over Europe. Its library replicates that of Sir Walter Scott and has a secret door leading to the staircase landing (it's marked by false books visible from the first floor). After her death the property passed to the Stigmatine order of monks, who used the manor as a boys' school; when they closed its doors the house stood vacant for two decades until the Horticultural Society took it over from the state on a $1-a-year-for-99-years lease.

``When a building is unheated, bad things happen to it," said Angela Lomanto , director of development for the Horticultural Society, whose lease is contingent on the society meeting certain benchmarks, such as restoring the former boathouse and gardeners' properties. Lomanto said the society hopes to eventually use the Cheney Baltzell house -- the first floor of which will be open to the public this weekend -- for functions, but its primary interests are educational and, naturally, horticultural.

The house also features a classical Italianate garden designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted , who created Boston's Emerald Necklace. At its edge are statues of Ceres, Flora, and Pomona, the Roman goddesses of grain, flowers, and fruit. The foreshortened statues with stumpy legs and enormous feet had originally stood on the pediment of the second Horticultural Society on Tremont Street, but disappeared after the building was torn down and the society moved to its third headquarters, near Symphony Hall, in 1901.

The goddesses were found, after the Globe ran a story about them in 1996, in a swamp near the Glen Urquhart Boys' School in Beverly. Their arms and heads had been eroded by long immersion in the brackish water, but they were restored after a gift from Horticultural Society trustee Jeanne Leszcynski and her friend Diane DiCarlo -- who stipulated only that their faces serve as the models for the restored Ceres and Flora.

LUCIA HUNTINGTON

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