A garden with a front seat to our nation’s history

Independence Day is a movie, a day off, a reason to fire up the grill, and most importantly, a day to celebrate our nation’s independence. 

The Declaration of Independence was signed in July 1776, declaring the “United Colonies of North America” free and independent states. 

The White House has been home to every president since John Adams, our nation’s second president. And it has always had a garden.

Let me be upfront, I am not a history buff, and I have never walked the White House gardens from the inside. Yet, I am intrigued by how the grounds and gardens have changed over the last 200 years.

As first residences of the new construction, Presidents Adams and Jefferson, having just cut ties with a monarchy, were advised by William Thornton, a Washington city commissioner, “Avoid palaces and gardens of palaces, if you build a palace with gardens I will find you a king.”

This explains why, although an avid gardener Jefferson did little to build extensive gardens at the president’s residence. He experimented and gardened at Monticello, his private residence.

While living at the White House, he did what all gardeners do – he created a way to garden through windowsill boxes, and plant stands around his study. He even kept a few garden tools near his desk.

President James Madison planted trees for privacy. Sugar maples, tulip trees, English walnut as well as evergreens. It is also under Madison that the first documented vegetable garden was planted at the presidential residence.

In the 1890s, under the supervision of head gardener Henry Pfister a series of glass conservatories were built. There was a fern house, violet house, two rose houses, and a propagation house. Other houses were filled with tables of forced bulbs such as hyacinth and lilies.

These glass houses were temperature-controlled and had electric lighting. A vast improvement from Jefferson’s window gardens, where glass offered little barrier from the cold and the indoor temperature varied from room to room.

Pfister was the presidential gardener for over thirty years through the presidencies of Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, Cleveland (twice), McKinley, and Roosevelt. 

During Theodore Roosevelt’s time, the residence would undergo transformative construction, and the conservatories were dismantled to make space for what would become the West Wing. 

The plants were carelessly moved to other spaces, and Pfister was dismissed.

The gardens were redesigned during Woodrow Wilson’s term, and in 1918 during World War I, a herd of sheep grazed the South Lawn to keep the grass short. This was to show support for troops overseas and a clever way to handle the labor shortage.

The sheep wool was auctioned for charity and raised $52,000 for the Red Cross.

During President’s Truman term, the inside of the residency received much-needed repairs. Missing his front porch, it was during these renovations that the Truman Balcony was built overlooking the South Portico. The lawn was also used to land helicopters.

President Kennedy enlisted Bunny Mellon, a well-known horticulturist, and landscape designer, to work with landscape architect Perry Wheeler. This duo is credited with the modern-day design of the Rose Garden.

At the request of Jackie Kennedy, Bunny also reworked the East Garden to include a play area for small children. After President Kennedy’s assassination, Lady Bird Johnson renamed it the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden in the spring of 1965.  

After being home to an exhibit of sculptures during the Clinton presidency and in need of new plantings, the Rose Garden was restored under President G.W. Bush.  

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama famously created the Kitchen Garden as part of the “Let’s Move” program.

The White House gardens have been the backdrop for many of the most significant moments in American history. Yet, it is a garden. It has evolved over the years to meet changing times and the needs of its people. In many ways, the White House grounds, minus the staff of caretakers and resources, is the same as the gardens we tend in our own “White Houses.”

Much of the research for this piece comes from All the Presidents’ Gardens, Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses-How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America, by Mart McDowell.