Touring the White House Gardens

19 Apr

A view of the White House from the South Lawn.

No matter how long I live here the allure of the city’s monuments and history never wanes. Whether I’m taking my weekend run around the National Mall or listening to the sound of taps from Arlington Cemetery waft through my open window, I love how the ambiance of DC weaves into daily life.

This past weekend I had the privilege to intersperse a bit more DC history into my life. I visited the White House Gardens. The White House Gardens were opened to the public for the first time in 1972 by Pat Nixon and have since been a springtime tradition. It’s one of the rare times the public is able to traverse the iron fence surrounding the White House and experience the grounds as the first family does.

It was President Washington who first envisioned a botanical garden at the White House and purchased the land that we now know as the South Lawn. However, it was John Adams who ordered the first planting of a garden, which was then completely redesigned by Thomas Jefferson. It was also Jefferson who started the tradition of planting trees, though it is believed that none of the seedling trees he planted survived to present day.

Although Jefferson’s trees no longer grace the White House grounds, there are more than three dozen commemorative trees. This tradition was started by President Hayes in 1876 to commemorate the nation’s centennial. Though, by the end of the tour it seemed to me that all the trees were planted by the Clintons and Bushs.

Somewhat fascinating is the number of changes the gardens have undergone. The current layout of the garden is based on FDR’s redesign in 1935, yet many of the elements that past Presidents or First Ladies added no longer stand.

For example, during the 183o’s President Jackson had an orangery built to enable year-round gardening, but it was later demolished. And, in 1913 Ellen Wilson replaced Edith Roosevelt’s colonial garden with what we now know as the rose garden.

New to the tour this year was Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden, which drew the largest crowd of onlookers.  I was surprised by how small the garden was up close. I envisioned it being much larger!

The Children’s Garden, created by Lady Bird Johnson in 1969, was also popular. The garden features handprints of the first children along the pathway. I guess that is the White House’s equivalent to cementing your kids handprints in the driveway!

Beauty of the gardens aside, I love how the grounds let each First Family express a bit of their personality. The changes represent popular cultural beliefs of the time and strolling through the grounds is an enjoyable way to reflect on our nation’s history.

Enjoy all my tour photos on Flickr!

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