Presidential Art in the Landscape – and Beyond

By Mary and Hugh Williamson

Throughout history, many nations’ leaders have affected our culture: art, architecture, fashion and even landscape trends. We are always drawn to those in power, and the populace tends to embrace glamorous aspects of their lives and personal styles.  Nowhere has it ever been more evident than in the care and direction given to the White House, the gardens and grounds.

Newly-elected President Donald J. Trump has said that he will leave the White House as it is.  However, history tells us that every president leaves the mark of tenure in office, and it is expected that this new administration will, as well.  This incredible White House evolution, as well as the impact of our American leaders upon culture is an interesting study.

Our Beginnings
Looking at the American Executive Mansion landscape evolution, we can begin with George Washington.  Although he never lived in the White House, The Father of Our Country had the foresight to purchase the land now known as the South Lawn from a tobacco farmer, and the land now known as the North Lawn from a local as well.  It was genius, as so much of what he did now is recognized to be. Presidential Residence’s first occupant, John Adams ordered the planting of the first White House garden, based on prescient Thomas Jefferson’s vision, but omitting Washington’s dreamed-of botanical garden.

1860 The south grounds, showing the first greenhouse, built on the west terrace in 1857. Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

And Changes
When our third president Thomas Jefferson took up residence, he redesigned the property with an impressive fan of groves trees and flower gardens. Little of what he designed remains, including his arc of triumph and accompanying willow trees.  His successors, however, helped to continue his dream of trees and flowers as a part of the experience.

President Hayes further continued the concept and used the grounds to plant commemorative trees to honor anniversaries and visitors.  There are now almost 40 trees that serve to mark important happenings in our nation’s capital.  The tradition of Presidents planting trees at the White House continued; George W. Bush planted a Cut Leaf Silver Maple in 2001. George H. W. Bush planted a Little Leaf Linden, assisted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991.

The Colonial Garden of Theodore Roosevelt’s First Lady Edith and other whims of First Families have come and gone.  Some remain, such as the Rose Garden.  The Rose Garden, originally conceived by the first wife of Woodrow Wilson replaced the Colonial Garden, and has itself been reimagined numerous times.  Redesigned in the Kennedy administration years, it still serves as a well-recognized venue for our nation’s ceremonies.

A Little More (Modern) History
Dwight Eisenhower certainly impacted the grounds of the Executive Residence, with his putting green that was installed in 1954, outside the Oval Office. His successor, JFK, embarrassed, it was said, about the green let it grow out.  It has since been reimagined!  President Clinton had the 1,500-square-foot green relocated to be even closer to the Oval Office.  Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Bushes 41 and 43 and Reagan have also been said to enjoy the feature! President Obama and Vice President Biden also appear in pictures taking a break from the West Wing.

Successors to the Kennedy’s “Camelot” magic may not have made such an impact on our culture.  More mundane design solutions seem to have been favored from some.  President Carter’s administrative style was a practical one.  The more formal Reagans restored tradition, and both Bush administrations extended it.

With what seems to be an attempt to be culturally and economically sensitive, the Obama administration has tended toward practical additions. Along with contemporary ceramic lamps, popular art and the relaxed furniture in the Oval Office, which replaced the traditional period pieces favored by most of his predecessors, we have seen the introduction of First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden.  This was conceived to encourage healthy eating by our youth.  It is possible that this garden was inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s down-to-earth Victory Garden, which was incentive for our wartime families to participate in our self-protection.

White House Kitchen Garden

Clearly a pattern of replacement and careful additions over these two centuries can be documented.  Presidents’ interests, favorite sports and sensibilities have directed the evolution of the grounds. With such precedents, it is difficult to imagine a President Trump, surveying the 18 acres surrounding the White House, and with the history of evolution would feel constrained to make changes. Combined with the Ellipse, the “President’s Park” encompasses over 52 acres, with 13 staff members likely expecting change.  Not exactly a blank canvas, but the possibilities certainly provoke thought from imaginative folks.  Melania Trump, with her elegant demeanor and particular style, may have some ideas for this treasure.

And Onward!
Therefore, it is likely that the Trump Administration, with the ubiquitous personal use of and appreciation for traditional Classical and European art forms returns us to an “Age of Elegance” in the People’s House.  And this may very well extend to the landscape and other design trends.  Who knows what will happen, and what “fashion” may emerge?  Maybe a re-creation of Thomas Jefferson’s arc of triumph? Given the Trump brand, we can likely expect glitz, glamour and a celebratory style in our great National Symbol.

For more information, see the White House Historical Association for many fascinating narratives.

Mary and Hugh Williamson live in Bluffton, SC, where interior designer Mary’s interior traditional style is in agreement with landscape architect Hugh’s formal walks, arboretum, trellises and courtyards.

Presidential Art in the Landscape – and Beyond