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West Garden of the White House, 1905 (Library of Congress)
The White House grounds have mirrored American garden history, with modifications over time reflecting changing fashions in horticulture and design. George Washington employed Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who brought a French classical aesthetic to the original site selection. Thomas Jefferson, with the help of architect Benjamin Latrobe, introduced an English romantic sensibility to the South Lawn. In its more than 200 years of history, the White House grounds have had rows of vegetables, extensive glasshouses, Victorian carpet bedding, and styles ranging from colonial revival to Italianate to the elegant horticultural palette of the Rose Garden.
Because the presidents and first ladies want to show the best that the country has to offer, many luminaries of American garden design have shaped the 18 acres that surround the White House. Andrew Jackson Downing made recommendations to President Fillmore. Beatrix Jones Farrand designed a garden for Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. wrote a landscape plan for Franklin Delano Roosevelt that is still in use. Michael Van Valkenburgh and his firm MVVA redesigned the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance between 2002 and 2004.
Marta McDowell, author of All the Presidents’ Gardens (Timber Press), offers a survey of American garden history as seen through the changing grounds at the White House, featuring the presidents, first ladies, and their gardeners. Copies of her book are available for purchase and signing.
Smithsonian and Other Connections
This program is presented in conjunction with the Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens exhibition Cultivating America’s Gardens, at the American History Museum beginning May 4. The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Burpee Foundation, Inc.
At a Cape Cod picnic in 1961, Rachel Lambert Mellon (better known as Bunny Mellon) was surprised when John F. Kennedy suggested she redesign the White House’s Rose Garden. With a bit of convincing from the president, the amateur gardener successfully took on the project, and also supervised the renovation of the East Garden for LBJ. Her recollections of working on the Rose Garden appear on the White House Historical Association’s site, along with period and contemporary images of the grounds.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)