Our new first lady inherits landscape filled with history

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 23, 2001

On Saturday George W. Bush was sworn in as America’s 43rd president. Live on C-Span Sunday, the president and his first lady Laura gave a televised public tour of their new residence, including the gardens. This made me wonder about the beginnings and progression of the White House landscape into the 21st century.

The rose garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is a famous backdrop for television interviews of presidents and dignitaries alike. Today the garden is located at the west wing of the White House, bordered by exterior walls on two sides. Overlooking the garden is the State dining room where many important dinners and parties have been held throughout the years.

Let’s take a look back at the landscape at the White House along with some of the changes that have taken place over time. The first cornerstone was laid for the building on Oct. 13, 1792, during George Washington’s presidency. He never actually resided in the first White House, although plans were well under way while he was in office. Interestingly, a horse stable was situated in the present-day rose garden.

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In 1803, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was assisted by Benjamin Latrobe with landscaping plans for the new official residence. Both men immediately agreed that curving lines were more attractive in the landscape as opposed to straight, square sections. The grounds were divided into half.

The northern section in front of the White House was designated for the public use and enjoyment. Overlooking the Potomac River, the southern grounds were to be private gardens with trees planted as screens to block off the entrance from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Jefferson added an area in the southeast corner of the property to be filled with parterres for commercial and edible plants. Due to lack of funding, the actual planting of the area was not completed until James Madison took office in 1809.

In 1776, Jefferson and Madison met in Willliamsburg where they were both delegates at the Virginia Constitutional Convention. A friendship endured for almost three decades until Madison’s death. Believing that his long time friend was the greatest farmer on earth, Jefferson held him in the highest esteem.

Perhaps that is some of the reason that Mr. and Mrs. Madison retained the service of Latrobe while they resided in the capital city. Shrubs and trees were still selected by Jefferson and met with approval by President Madison and the first lady. Unfortunately the mansion was burned down during the British invasion of 1814 and the Madison family had to complete their term elsewhere.

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson began work on renovations to the stable.

A solid roof and full-length south- facing windows were only two of the features of his new &uot;orangery,&uot; a special building for potted citrus specimens.

During winter, the windows provided the much appreciated warm winter sunshine necessary for the trees’ survival.

The following president was Martin Van Buren, an extremely enthusiastic gardener. During his presidential career, political opponents got hold of the books and made public the lavish amount he spent on his private garden in hopes of ousting him from office.

Glasshouses replaced the orangeries in the 1850s. In the years between the Civil War and World War I, gardening under glass became a national pastime. The Victorian indoor garden craze saw the beginning of the first established rose garden at the White House. Roses and other garden flowers in the greenhouse were used to fill the mansion with bouquets of color and fragrance.

As soon as Theodore Roosevelt entered the presidency, he began his remodeling project of the home. The architect hired was Charles McKinn, who felt that the maze of glasshouses should be removed.

Mrs. Edith Roosevelt quickly made plans for a &uot;colonial garden&uot; complementary to the remodeling. Intricate boxwood parterres were filled with old- fashioned garden favorites. In true Colonial cottage garden style, she recommended brightly colored blooms such as hollyhocks, sweet peas, sweet william and black-eyed Susan fill the flower beds.

In 1913, when Woodrow Wilson was elected president, his wife decided to make big changes to the garden. In opposite taste, she decided on a formal rose garden outside the White House. The garden was described at the time as &uot;rigid, formal and green; with sharp corners and long vistas, in the manner of 17th-century Italian gardens.&uot; Mrs. Wilson filled the garden with choice specimen roses.

The White House rose garden remained virtually unchanged until the Kennedy administration.

President Kennedy envisioned the garden as an extension of the house, a private room adjoining the oval office which could serve as a place for official ceremonies, press releases and parties.

Landscape plans were drawn and work began on the modern-day rose garden in 1961. During the renovations, many relics were found, such as broken bits of pots and glass along with horse shoes.

Today our new first lady may already have plans for changes in the White House landscape.

Laura Bush is known to have a fondness for gardening, one of the most popular pastimes in our country. Being an active gardener, she’ll no doubt have a few favorites to include in her new surroundings.

The praises of the Texas Bluebonnet have been sung by past first wives, including the crusading wildflower conservationist Lady Bird Johnson and Mrs. Laura Bush’s mother-in-law, Barbara Bush. Maybe the &uot;Laura Bush Petunia,&uot; named a few years ago by Texas plantsman Greg Grant, will become another of our country’s horticultural legacies in years to follow. I can’t wait to find out.

Gardening Miss-Lou Style is a weekly column written by Traci Maier of Natchez. Please send your comments and questions to Gardening Miss-Lou Style, c/o The Natchez Democrat, 503 N. Canal St., Natchez, Miss., 39120 or by e-mail to ratmaier@iamerica.net.