IT’S NOT EASY BEING DREW BECHER.
The new president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is standing in the kitchen of his 85-year-old fieldstone home in Chestnut Hill, and here, at least, he’s happy. His counters are spotless, the island in the center of the room is perfectly bare, and the slate floors are gleaming — though Becher and his partner, Eric Lochner, put on a dinner party the night before. Becher and Lochner planned the redesign of the kitchen themselves, converting the chopped-up original, plus a vestibule, a mudroom and a pantry, into sleek modern austerity. “I love the feel of it,” Becher says, glancing around in approval. Then he adds: “And all of the appliances are hidden.”
There’s a medical condition known as tactile defensiveness in which sufferers experience even the mildest touch — the sweep of a hair, the brush of a feather — as excruciatingly painful. Becher is like that, only in terms of his surroundings. Ugliness offends him. Clutter abrades him. Having to look at bad art is to walk across glass. He’s always been this way.
“I was a pretty weird kid,” he says. He grew up (in Ohio) fond of weeding. He started doing yard work in grade school. He founded a garden club in high school. In college, at the University of Cincinnati, he was so distressed by the campus’s appearance — 23 different styles of trash can! — that he produced a report to the president suggesting improvements the administration eventually made.
He was, he admits, a pain in the ass to live with. “But at my fraternity,” he’s quick to add—he was house master, of course — “my roommate and I created the best room in the house. Built-in lofts and everything. It became the room everyone wanted after we left.”
Two decades later, Becher, 41, has taken that concept — building the room everyone wants—to a much grander level. It started in Chicago while he was still in grad school, after an internship at City Hall morphed into a job as head of the Park District, sprucing up the city with green roofs, more trees and a ton of parks. It continued in Washington, D.C., and then in New York City, where he was executive director of Bette Midler’s nonprofit New York Restoration Project, planting 400,000 trees, amassing major corporate partnerships for greening efforts (Home Depot, Target, Toyota), and creating community gardens on previously vacant land. Then, last February, PHS — the foremost horticultural society in the country, and one of the two most important in the world, along with London’s Royal — chose Becher from a field of 200-some candidates to succeed the legendary Jane Pepper, who was retiring after more than 25 years at the helm.
Pepper herself had supplanted the equally legendary Ernesta Ballard, an ardent feminist and passionate plantswoman who in the ’60s and ’70s grew PHS’s quaint little flower show into a spring-comes-early extravaganza that each year draws a quarter-million visitors to town. “This is one of the best jobs in the world, and it has only come open once in the past 30 years,” Becher points out. “I decided to go for it.”