garden heritage lost: the sad makeover of the nation’s rose garden.

White House Rose Garden BEFORE on left side.

I am cross pollinating a bit. But the “makeover” of the White House Rose Garden is like a garden tragedy to me. I guess I have a problem with a “keep the First Lady busy project“, especially because this isn’t a First Lady who’s actually also a gardener. Just because you can hire the best consultants or whatever that money can buy doesn’t mean you should do it.

The White House Rose Garden was started by First Lady Edith Roosevelt, wife of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Only at that point it wasn’t actually a rose garden per se, just a garden. A “colonial garden.”

Edith Roosevelt’s Colonial Garden. White House Historical Association Photo.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, First Lady Ellen Wilson turned First Lady Edith Roosevelt’s garden into an actual rose garden.

White House Rose Garden as installed by First Lady Ellen Wilson. Library of Congress Photo.

But it was under First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy’s guidance that the White House Rose Garden became what we knew it to be until recently. You can read the first hand account by Bunny Mellon who designed the garden, on the White House history website. Essentially, President John F. Kennedy and his wife First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy wanted a rose garden that had the appeal and quality of the European gardens they had toured.

Screenshot from Washington Post article.

The White House Rose Garden should not have been touched like this. What does Melania Trump know from gardening? CNN said in their coverage:

📌 🌹”First lady Melania Trump on Saturday unveiled the newly renovated White House Rose Garden, an iconic space that she will use as a backdrop for her upcoming speech to the Republican National Convention.

The Rose Garden has been under construction since late last month, when the first lady announced she was spearheading an overhaul to the space to include updates to the technological elements of the space, as well as the redesign of the plantings and the placement of new limestone walkways. Since construction began, the garden — used more frequently in the Covid-19 era to hold news conferences as it allows White House staff, journalists and guests to more safely socially distance — has been out of sight from staff and members of the press.” 📌🌹

As a gardener, this just makes you want to scream. As an American, this makes you want to scream. These people tore up Jackie Kennedy‘s garden just to suit their own selfish needs. This is not about improving a garden, this is selfish behavior. The White House Rose Garden is not an outdoor boardroom! (See comments from a White House.)

Gone are the neat rows of crabapple trees. And what about the perennials and bulbs and plants that have been going into this garden since the turn of the 20th century? What was preserved? And if plants were moved where were they moved to?

Town & Country Magazine has written a fabulous article about this garden:

🌹📌” The White House Rose Garden is far more than a picturesque background for announcements and briefings, State Dinners, and official ceremonies. It is a place that has signified an intimate and more casual side of the White House: John F. Kennedy welcomed the Project Mercury astronauts in the Rose Garden; Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia was married on its lawn; and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Barack Obama did a “Rose Garden Freestyle” rap. It is one of the most recognizable gardens in the United States….

In 1902, Edith Roosevelt designated the West Garden as a colonial garden and established formal flower beds. She worked with the Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects (the same firm that designed New York’s Central Park), to establish the area in front of the newly created Oval Office.

Roosevelt’s design lasted until Ellen Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, designated the area as the Rose Garden. (Roses have always been an unofficial symbol of the White House; when it was rebuilt in the 18th century, Scottish stonemasons even carved roses into the building’s columns.) The name stuck and the Rose Garden quickly became a beloved institution and place where the president could step outside for fresh air during the work day….Returning from a tour in Europe in 1961, John F. Kennedy requested that Jackie create a formal garden reception space for the White House like the ones he had seen in Europe. Jackie, who was close with famed decorator Bunny Mellon, called her friend immediately…

She brought on Perry Wheeler, the favored landscape architect of D.C.’s elite to help her conceive of an idea. Struck by a magnolia tree that stands just outside the Oval Office, planted by Andrew Jackson in memory of his late wife, Bunny proposed three other magnolia trees to define the four corners of an open space.

Then on either side of the large lawn, a 12-foot frame, like a photo, would be filled with crab-apple trees, roses, boxwoods, and perennials that could be interchanged in different seasons.”📌🌹

It is Jackie Kennedy‘s rose garden that most of us have known in our lifetimes. And it’s like that memory doesn’t matter, and that garden full of those carefully chosen plants didn’t matter either.

I know gardens have to evolve and they have to be maintained. And every homeowner wants to put their own personal individual stamp on their garden. But the White House isn’t just some house, it’s a symbol of the American people, in America’s capital. And this was not done for us. It was done simply because they could do it.

I am a gardener who is fascinated with heritage and antique plants. I try to seek out heirloom bulbs when I can, and I look for antique rose bushes to plant in my garden. Gardening has a history all its own. I am wondering what was lost in this “renovation”?

To me this is like someone bulldozing a historic house to build a Tyvek wrapped McMansion. It’s just wrong.

Bunny Mellon watercolor circa 1962 of her concept for the White House Rose Garden.

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