Washington Home/July 4, 1996

The President's Park

One Grand Garden, Many Grand Schemes. History Is Told In Tree and Shrub.

By William Seale
Photography by
Roger Foley for The Washington Post

ONCE AGAIN A GRAND SCHEME IS OFFERED to improve the White House environs. The White House has probably the oldest continually maintained landscape in the United States, and the present plan proposes that things be considerably different from what we know. Close lines of trees frame the streets, Lafayette Park is entirely rearranged, and security gates plug motor access to the streets that cross the area north of the White House fence, including Pennsylvania Avenue, already closed by the president more than a year ago for security reasons. Room is left for inaugural parades.

The plan, with its estimated price tag of $40 million, is Landscape Architecture Idealized. There are pools, walkways, lawns patterned by walks, gate lodges, necklaces of stone bollards along the edges of sidewalks, and public toilets. Old and historic streets are shrunk to a more "human" scale, made into shady allees, nice places to walk and sit.

Most unexpected is a rearrangement of the iron fence of the White House, whereby it is pulled up and bowed northward out into the avenue, no longer straight. Asphalt yields to paving stares, with confections of inlaid stars at the intersections; no footprints of stars, however, but plenty of quotes from the presidents all around, cut into stone.

It is not the first grand plan. Perhaps the hundredth of as many swept away and forgotten in the hasty, ongoing pace of White House life.

The garden has served many masters, all of whom have played their part in shaping it. The White House grounds began as a palatial scheme in the imaginations of George Washington and his city planner, Pierre L'Enfant, in 1791. Eighty-two acres were set aside to surround the presidential "palace." The splendid stone house—a chateau—was to overlook reflecting pools, water cascades, groves and meadows, and from its windows one could enjoy a view southward of a pyramid, planned for Alexandria's Jones Point.

Politics came to bear. L'Enfant, not a team player, had to go. The house he planned was cut down to size, then replaced, resulting in the present White House, a fourth the size of what Washington wanted. Committees suggested making the grounds smaller, but the president held out for his 82 acres—that is, until the Congress demanded that the public offices be built under its thumb, near the Capitol. Then George Washington personally sited the first federal offices in the city to the east and west of the president's house. The first grand plan was thus violated numerously before the White House was occupied. Treasury and the Old Executive Office Building are descendants of those earliest federal offices.

Thomas Jefferson faced a wasteland of a yard in 1801. He fenced it down to about 10 acres and left the rest to nature. Later on, his seedling trees were trampled by troops guarding the house for dames Madison, and at last by British sailors, who put their torches to the house in 1814. It wasn't until after 1818, when the house was rebuilt, that the grounds were improved. Boston architect Charles Bulfinch's plans for the grounds are lost. He laid out Lafayette Square (now Park), planted hundreds of trees and devised an elegant fence for the north perimeter, with a serpentine line to it, and two gates. A cranky German ironmonger in New York, Paulus Hedl, made the gates and presented Monroe with the keys Andrew Jackson disliked the fence, a mere 12 years later, and ordered the stone pillars rolled apart 30 or 40 feet, as well as having the fence straightened out between them—straight as an arrow. None of this has changed in appearance since then. Even one set of gates remained until 1976, when retired to storage.

John Quincy Adams, between Monroe and Jackson, was a devoted gardener. Every morning he jumped in the Potomac naked, and swam, with only the protection of a steward, who bobbed along in a rowboat. After exercise, Adams returned to the White House yard en , fell on his knees and labored over plantings of flowers, vegetables, fruits (notably cherries) and native trees. His mighty old American elm yielded its hid a few years ago to a clone, developed in botanical labs from the parent It grows in memory of the early presidential gardener.

Andrew Jackson and his successors liked to walk among the trees, which by the 1850s formed shady groves. An orangery supplied citrus fruits in winter for health and camellias nearly all year for beauty.

When the Treasury expanded in the 1850s, the orangery had to go and President Franklin Pierce ordered a greenhouse version built atop the west terrace, opening directly into the house. What a paradise it was, brimming with flowers, interesting cactus, vines and its tables of pots surmounted by a sago palm that had actuary been owned by George Washington.

Through the later decades of the 19th century, plan after plan was brought out for the grounds. President Ulysses S. Grant's comrade and bosom friend, Gen. Orville Babcock, had vision. He knocked down the south fence and extended the grounds to about where they are today. He planted trees and built fountains 70 feet across, which survive, replaced, but about the same style.

Nor were his successors hesitant to dream. One plan in the 1880s shows Medici beauty in a marble-rimmed lake in the Ellipse with 12 great jets of water in it. Mosaic pavements, pergolas and the inevitable tree-lined walkways promised a fairyland, which, alas, came to nothing. The result was a landscape developed with little of this and a little of that. Many bits and pieces of planning add up to the White House garden today. In a sense, this process has given the grounds their unique personality. Rutherford B. Hayes surveyed Grant's plans and rescued the Ellipse. The tree-planting came from an earlier plan, made in 1850 by the celebrated Andrew Jackson Downing, the tragic young designer killed in a steamboat explosion in 1852. His colleague, John Saul, carried out some of his ideas but left to go into real estate.

Edith Carow Roosevelt wept seeing the conservatories demolished by the Beaux-Arts architect Charles McKim in 1902 as not "pure" to the Georgian architecture of the house. She rallied by building a "colonial" garden on the site, repository for every kind of old fashioned flower, as we! as a cemetery for the numerous Roosevelt pets. Teddy himself took his gardening evenings with bourbon on the south portico, among the yellow blossoms of Lady Banksia roses.

When Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. went to the White House in 1935, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to try to make some sense out of the grounds, he found still there, utterly buried in honeysuckle and tangled roses, a rusty iron fence General Babcock had built in the days of President Grant. Trees blocked the view of the place where the Jefferson Memorial would rise. Old plant material sagged and held on, blocking sun from the new.

What Olmsted produced was less a plan than an idea. For reasons of security, and to frame the house, trees on the south side would be phased heavily along the fences to the east and west A sweep of lawn would give a superb view of the Memorial from the White House; and looking back to the north, the house would gleam in a setting of green, in full view but too distant to touch. On the north front, behind the iron fence of Monroe and Jackson, a yard scattered with elms and oaks would shade the portico.

Olmsted's inspired idea has stuck. Irvin Martin Williams, who has supervised and cherished these grounds for the better part of 40 years,

William Seale is a historian, author and restorer of historic buildings His latest bock, "The White House Garden," was published in June by in White House Historical Association.