tv The Presidency White House Grounds CSPAN April 13, 2020 11:01am-11:36am EDT
is a fellow wisconsinite like myself. noted landscape historian, a garden for the president, history of the white house grounds. jonathan will be signing copies of this book later in the day during the reception in the gift shop. so you'll have an opportunity to meet with him and talk about how great his presentation was, no pressure. so please join me in welcoming jonathan pliska. >> good evening. i'd like to thank the garden historical association and oak spring for having me today and hosting events as well as that splendid reception last night at
the u.s. botanic garden and, of course, thank you all for attending. my task here this morning is to give you an overview of the first 100 years or so of the white house grounds. focusing on the various uses of the landscape as well as the physical development and to squeeze this all in in a little under 30 minutes. now that's a bit of a tall order. we're obviously not going to be able to touch on everything. but i like a challenge. i think we'll do just fine. okay. so let's start with the basics. as i'm sure you're aware, the who us is the official residence of the president of the united states. and is located just a few hundred yards south of near downtown washington. the white house itself stands as the centerpiece of a grand 18.7 acre site which we know as the white house grounds. having been established in 1790, the white house grounds in fact constitute the oldest continually maintained landscape
in the nation. the grounds are older than the mansion itself. george washington is rather famously the only president who never lived in the white house. but every single u.s. president including washington has walked upon the grounds. so this right here is what the grounds look like today. a green sloping lawn and groves of grand trees. this is definitely not what the grounds looked like in 1790. the south grounds originally stopped here. basically where this roadway is. and it stopped there for about the first eight decades of the grounds existence. and the southerly addition was to compensate for the loss of land in the east and west eaten up by the expansion of the executive offices. so that is the treasury building and state war navy building which is the eisenhower executive office.
before john adams moved in november 1st, 1800, the landscape was left neglected and unimproved. as we heard, it was still full of all the temporary structures needed tore budding the mansion, the carpenter shed and the house that's housed the work men on site and unused construction materials and even heaps of garbage. many of the pre-existing trees had been filled for firewood. the ground itself was terribly uneven and full of holes dug to gather play for firing in the brick kilns. the scene was deplorable. upon her arrive will a, first lady abigail adams was less than impressed and wrote to her daughter that the place had "not the least fence yard or other
convenience." even so, she saw the landscape's potential through all of this mess and closed the note by saying it remains a beautiful spot capable of every improvement. >> the adams would not have any improvements them theflz. john adams lost his re-election bid and only lived in the white house for a little less than four months. so when the new president thomas jefferson moved in, the landscape remained a wreck. visitors at the time described it as "a baron stoney unfenced waste that existed in a rough wild state." one english gentleman found the site dangerous after dark when in his words "one was libel to fall into a pit or stumble over a pile of rubbish." but none of this deterred jefferson in the slightest and immediately he got to work improving the landscape, removing the temporary buildings, filling in the holes and grading the earth. jefferson's vision for the grounds culminated in this draft landscape plan which is believed
to have been executed at least in part in his own hand. and while it doesn't look very much like the current arrangement of the white house grounds, it is absolutely vital because it formed the basis for all future development. it also perfectly illustrates how at the beginning the white house grounds were more short and squat than they are today. they're shorter north and south and wider east and west. so very broadly speaking, his plan revolved around three key themes. he divided the landscape in north and south grounds. the white house itself the dividing line between the two halves. and this arrangement may seem familiar as most american homes have front lawns visible from the street and back yards that are more secluded. this is jefferson's intent. to have the north grounds freely accessible to the public and the south grounds reserved for the private use of the presidential
household. this distinction blurred and changed but even now the white house grounds is completely restricted, still fair to say the south grounds are the mansion's formal front lawn and the south grounds the homie backyard. as for the third theme, jefferson called for plants in abundance. his vision, of course, included trees, lots of them, in fact. but also productive gardens for growing fruits and vegetables and ornament gardens for flowers and decorative plants. the plantings on the north grounds are formal and those on the south grounds were more picturesque. so let's begin on the north grounds. standing on pennsylvania avenue, looking at the north front of the white house, this really is the most iconic view of the mansion. i mean, who's come to visit washington and no had the photo taken here standing by the fence? i know i have lots of times. and today this is still the formal front lawn of the white house. the place where the public can
get close to the home of the american president. this was even more true throughout the 19th century. the public was allowed ready 5:00 stes to the north grounds. people weren't shy about coming for a visit either. we can see from this fantastic photo of these rather dapper gentlemen lounging on the north grounds rather fittingly in their shadow of the jefferson statue that was there until centerpiece of the north grounds. all this was fine and good as long as he had respected the right to privacy and stayed out of the private self grounds. what do you think happened? before very long, folks started making themselves quite at home in the president's backyard as well. this trend really started with a bang during andrew jackson's inaugural reception when more than 20,000 supporters descended on the white house and ran rough shot through the rooms before spilling outdoors and continuing
to party outside on the south grounds. and to be fair, washington was still a young city and lacking in parkland and other recreational spaces. so people simply started aveiling themselves of whatever piece of green ground they could find. and because of this, by the mid 19 jth century, the landscapes with a public park. at times referred to in the press as the public grounds which is precisely what we see in this engraving. and some presidential households dealt with this invasion of privacy better than others. president grant for his part hated the crowds that turned up each afternoon to watch his children play outside. but he put up with them because dent want to be labelled as the president who shut the people out. the family of president benjamin harrison who we see here fell on the other side of the spectrum. they were good natured about living in the public eye and even posed for photographs. in particular, the president's
young grandchildren always drew quite a lot of attention. children always do in the white house. and this was especially true when they were being carted around by hir pet get to who had the very apt name of his wiskers. but eventually enough was enough. when unwanted visitors went so far as to physically hoist president cleveland's baby daughter out of her carriage in order to get a better look at her and pose with her like she was a doll, he had to put his foot down in order to ensure her safety. i mean, what parent wouldn't do the same thing? so public access under the south grounds thus came to an abrupt end in 1893. the south grounds returned to what president jefferson intended, a private presidential retreat and they remain so to this day. the north grounds stayed open for a bit longer before also being closed for good in 1929 due to mount ago security concerns. today obviously general access to the entirety of the white house grounds is prohibited.
but there are, of course, exceptions to every rule, even this one. the best example is the annual public easter egg roll. one of the longest tenures and loved events in all of white house history. held the monday after easter, the 2019 egg roll just took place and marked the celebration's 141st anniversary. less than 200 children shoeld up in 1878 to roll the brightly colored hard boiled eggs and themselves down the sloping south grounds. the event's popularity skyrocket skyrocketed since then. in 1890, the estimated attendance was already up to 50,000. far more people than the grounds could realistically accommodate. and shortly there after the decision was made to bar adults unless accompanied by a child. this was a good idea but also flawed because enterprising kids going back and forth through the gates charming a dime a head to
bring in as many sets of parents as they could find. and since 2009, tickets have been distributed in advance via online lottery. more than 200,000 tickets are requested each year but attendance is limited to 30 thou tlou tlo -- 30 thou tlou,000 lucky winn. all of the different types of plants growing on the landscape over the years. thomas jefferson was a life long gardener and while it's romantic, at least to me, to imagine him outside the white house trowel in hand digging the soil, it's unlikely he ever did any planting on the grounds during his eight years in office. the site was simply into n. too bad a shape and jefferson had to contend himself with setting the stage for successors. one thing we know he did do though is place this order for trees and shrubs which arrived at the white house mere days after james madison became president. 51 different types of plants are on this list including oak,
walnut, elm, ash, and beech trees. wane also know that these trees were indeed planted as one of jefferson's assistants wrote saying if you were at the white house, you would scarcely know it for the grounds have become wilderness of shrubbery and trees. not exactly a wilderness of shrubbery and trees. so do any of these early trees or shrubs still survive today? it's possible. there is particularly one large oak on the south grounds that might even be older than the mansion itself. but it's not very likely that most of these early plantings survived. and that's because the british burned the white house during the war of 1812. leaving only the charred exterior walls left standing. and the best depiction of the aftermath is this painting and it shows a scene of utter devastation and suggests the landscape faired just as bad as the mansion. moreover, during the rebuilding of the white house, the grounds
once again reverted about a to being a construction site and they did most of the work accomplished under madison. thankfully in 1825 another plant loving president moved in. john quincey adams had a life long interest in horticulture but his political career had always kept him moving from place to place and unable to do any real gardening of his own. this all chanched when he came to the white house and established a tree nursery. and that's what we see here in the foreground of the image. all told, adams grew more than 700 trees compromising a wide variety of species. a oak he planted in 1826 survived up until 1991. and for many years was the oldest tree on the grounds with the presidential association. some of his trees had special significance. some grew from trees and nuts. he had a spanish chestnut
descended from a tree planted by george washington. white oak from a tree riddled with bullets fired during the war of 1812 and english oaks from the city of salem, massachusetts, which i believe were likely procured from the gallo street used to hang during the witch trials of the 1690s. but the most famous tree ever planted on the white house grounds is undoubtedly the grand southern magnolia located just west of the south lawn. that is this tree right here. legend holds that it was perm personally planneded by andrew jackson who dpeeted adams in the election of 1828. both sides ran nasty campaigns that year. but the adams camp crossed a line when they accused jackson's wife rich will of being an adulteress. and when they dude only two weeks before her husband's victory, jackson made it known he believed that the assault on her character and good name had quite literally killed his wife. he never forgave adams.
and grief stricken, the widower president brought with him seeds from his wife's favorite tree, the southern magnolia and planted them outside the white house in her memory. truthfully, the story is probably more fiction than fact. neither jackson nor any of his contemporaries mention the tree. does it not appear in the early photos of the white house. this does not detract from the enduring love story that tree has come to represent over the centuries. it may be the most famous but they are far from the only tree planted on the white house grounds. this existing condition surveyed dates to around 1900 and marks the location of some 500 trees and large shrubs. that's what all of these tiny dots are. and 500 or so this is the same number of trees and shrubs found on the grounds today. beginning in the 1870s, nearly every presidential administration has also planted athe least one tree as a means
of commemorating time at the white house. unfortunately, not all of these trees have survived. but here are two that have. in 1996, bill and hillary clinton planted a flowering dogwood in honor of the victims of the oklahoma city bombing. the oldest tree with a proven presidential association is this beautiful rust colored japanese maple planted by first lady francis cleveland on the far south grounds in 1893. the same year the grounds were closed to the public. and the most recent tree was also planted about i a first lady n this case, milania trump who in august 2018 planted a sapling from an oak tree planted by president eisenhower on the white house grounds in the 1950s. so other than trees, what else grew on the grounds? well, up until about a decade
ago, first lady michelle obama installed the current white house vegetable garden, fresh produce probably yo not have been the first thing that came to people's minds. and that's because prior to 2009, there would be no serious cultivation of fruits or vegetable tez white house for nearly 150 years. but the truth is that for much of the 19th century, the white house grew a great deal of its own food. as with the first trees, the first vegetable seeds were planted under madison and almost certainly ordered by jefferson in the waning days of his administration. these included cabbage, broccoli, radish, cucumber and leak. and john quincey adams later wrote in his diary about planting deep blood colored beats, white flowered carrots, yellow flowered parnips, horseradish and tall and slender art chokes and fun fact, jerusalem artichokes are neither artichokes nor from the holy
land. they're actually a type of sunflower native to north america that grows a tube that is like a potato. and adams first mentioned herbs such as mint, sage, prize winning strawberries and peaches grown by his skilled gardener. after he came to afc, andrew jackson went even big bier converting adams' former tree nursery into a dedicated kitchen garden. for some 40 years, this plot provided fresh food for the occupants of the white house to enjoy. and this landscape drawing shows the old kitchen garden at the greatest extent. having grown to about one acre in size, it was pretty darn big, larger than the main block of the white house. the garden is located in this trapezoidal area. and as you can see, it's also rather interestingly divided up into eight smaller sections which to me suggests that it was
run like a miniature farm. and i should also point out the faint lines running vertically through the drawing here. that's the outline of the future west executive avenue which today separates the white house grounds from the eisenhower executive office building. when this road was cut through in the early 1870s, it ran straight through the middle of the kitchen garden which alas meant the end of the serious growing of fruits and vegetables on the white house grounds until the obama administration. now unfortunately, because it was a working productive space, the old kitchen garden is not terribly well documented. it wasn't pretty or glamorous and so it went largely unrecorded. there aren't any paintings or photographs of it and apart from the plantage shown there isn't any visual record of it at all. there really isn't much of a paper trail to follow. however, after an awful lot of searching and awful lot of
archives, i was fortunate enough to track down the original sales receipts for the fruit and vegetable seeds grown in the white house kitchen garden during president lincoln's time. and trust me, if you're historian looking for anything relating to the white house, it is best to find it during lincoln's tenure. he can mag anything interesting and significant even this list. something like tomatoes or buchanan's brussel sprouts would not have the same cache. so many are long since out of cultivation. but a good number still exist as heirloom varieties and can be purchased online from seed banks and specialized growers. if you are still even stocked at local garden centers. this means that backyard gardeners can try their hand at growing the same produce that graced president lincoln's table during the civil war. this season you can still do this. you would like to plant purple top turnips or some prince albert peas or christmas beans or hunter's cantaloupe?
or what about my personal favorite, if nothing else, just from the name alone, manglewertzel, the beet's larger cousin. my wife and i have done our fwoest do so at our suburban baltimore home. we're -- i think i'm a better historian than gardener. i don't have a black thumb but neither is it green. we had more success with some than others and the biggest success by far was our cabbage harvest a few years ago. seriously, if we can grow this much cabbage, it's foolproof and a great plant to start off with. now there's a silly photo of me on c-span. okay. of course what would the white house be without flowers? john quincey adams and andrew jackson kept a flower garden on the west side of the grounds.
the history has proven to be he lucive to track down. this is, in fact, the only known image of the original white house flower garden. and it's not exactly much of a view, is it? the garden is located here in the middle ground of the photo. there is this wooden structure. the foregrounds dominated about think crane used in the construction of the treasury building's west wing. wait this is expansion of t treasury building that necessitated the removal of the original white house flower garden. and for the rest the 19th century, there really were no ornamental gardens on the white house grounds. no real flower gardens in the way we think of them today. and why would that be? well, frankly, because the president and their families didn't have any outdoor space to plant such a garden.
that is no private outdoor space to plant such a garden. the north grounds were open to the public as jefferson intended but the south grounds were also used as public park land which as you will recall was not part of the original plan. so instead with, the construction of the white house conservatory, the flower garden simply moved indoors at the white house. it became a private space for the first family to enjoy out of public view. this is very early photograph of the white house conservatory which is obviously this large glass building here. it was steamy and exotic. absolutely overflowing with all types of hothouse plants. one 19th century news reporter did get inside and described the scene as "almost like penetrating the luxurious fragrance of some south american island. so warm is the atmosphere." and first lady lucy webb hayes
seen with her children and one of the friends in the conservatory knew a tremendous amount of plants and was an avid guard earn. she and her husband unite liced t utilized the conservatory. so after dinner with guests, instead of serve drinks, they led tours of the conservatory. this has gone over surprisingly well with the guests coming away quite pleased by the experience. by the year 1900, the single conservatory, the big building here had, grown into one vast glass house complex that ranged over much of the near southwest grounds. the conservatory itself was for show and enjoyment. a luxury for the presidential household. but the rest of the buildings were purely functional green houses, spaced designed to grow as many plants as possible. and by the turn of the 20th
century, the green houses were at the peak production cranking out thousands of bulbs, flowers, ferns, and shrubs per year for planting outdoors on the grounds or use inside the white house. there are nine separate buildings shown in this drawing from left to right. we have a large rose house. the gardener's office, a house here, a grapery, a fern house, a geranium house, a smaller rose house. you see where the priorities are here. the roses always been the king of flowers at the white house. and then finally, a general propagating house and an orchid house. and then rather suddenly, in 1902, everything changed. all of the green houses as well as the conservatory which is what we see here were unceremoniously torn down. and the reason, to make room for the expansion of the white house under theodore roosevelt, speci
specifically the new west wing in the foreground. that was basically that. there is never been another green house at the white house since. so understandably, the loss of their indoor flower gad endid not thrill the president or his family. first lady first came up with a wonderful solution to the problem. since the south grounds were closed to the public, it was again possible to move the presidential flower gardens back outdoors. and this is precisely what they did in 1902 and 1903. specifically the first lady created two colonial style gardens along the immediate south face of the mansion. one a short distance west of the south lawn and the other in the same position on the east side. they were intercat and heavily embellished and modelled after the patterned gardens arranged outside large he estates such as mt. vernon in the 1700s. box wood hedges and gravel walks define the outlines of the
gardens. and both bloomed with old fashioned flowers such as snap dragons, pinks, golden rods, columbines, phlox, holy hocks and peonies. she was pleased with the result. so pleased she chose to it is for her official portrait as first lady in the west colonial garden. some of her successors, however, were not nearly so impressed with her handy work. and so that is how mrs. roosevelt's gardens began to change over the course of the 20th sin tri. west garden shown at the left became the internationally famous rose guarden that we all know and love today. for east colonial garden shown at the right is now the jacqueline kennedy garden, less well known than the rose garden but no less beautiful. and my colleagues later today will be telling you all about how this trance formation took place. it's a fascinating story, especially for garden lovers
such as ourselves. with that, ladies and gentlemen, you have ab abbreviated history of the white house grounds from 1790 to 1903 in i think just about a half hour. so thank you for your time and, again, it's been my great pleasure. >> so we have a little bit of time. we can do a short q&a since we made up a little bit of time. way to be fast. >> awesome. >> there are micro phones on either side of the room. if you have a question, feel free to raise your hand. >> don't y'all do it -- there we go. >> i want to ask you about the use of the -- i'll wait for microphone. the use of the green houses for cutting gardens and the use inside the house. so was it almost all sourced from there for the arrangements
inside the home? >> at the time, absolutely. >> and who was doing the arranging at that time? >> that would have been -- it depends. the white house gardeners at various times would have done it. the white house gardener at the time, for instance, under marry todd lincoln presented her with a bouquet every single day. so they had that kind of relationship. so it varied from administration to administration. >> and i noticed one of the houses was the orchid house. >> yes. >> so can you talk about the varieties that might have been at that? >> to be honest, it is everything that was available at the time. it was built during the grant administration. it was specifically under first lady grant's auspices. she indoctrinated at the time an orchid craze in the united states. because orchids were brand new. as far as varieties go, i can't
answer you specifically off the top of my head. it literally would have been everything available to them because they were trying to show off as much as possible, frankly. >> thank you. >> yes, sir? >> was there ever any geopolitical influence in the white house with gifts of flowers and trees from international visitors or things given to international visitors from the garden? >> that's a really good question. the good example is the jackson magnolia which i was talking about is suppose somewhat also rather famously in a state of decline. the tree is basically on tree life support. there is no center of the tree. it is being held up by a pole. so this is the grand effort that the white house and the national park service are going to to keep this tree up. and because of the special historical significance, there is also saplings that are
constantly being grown so the tree when it finally does have to go and it will, it's a living thing, they are going to replace the tree with a genetically identical tree grown from it. and this means that there is anywhere between i think eight and 12 of these being grown at any given time. and some do better than others. some get bigger. and once they get to a certain size, rather than just throw them away, those are, for instance, sometimes presented to visiting dignitaries and other honored guests. [ inaudible question ] >> yeah. most recently a tree was brought from france by the french president. and i believe it was a year or two ago at this point. he and president trump planted it on the south grounds. it was a tree from the bella wood battlefield in france which is where the u.s. marines earned their nickname devil dogs fighting in defense of the
allied cause. and the tree then shortly thereafter disappeared from the grounds. the reason being it needed to go through quarantine just like anything else. so it -- funny storey. it was planted in an enormous tarp so none of the actual roots of the tree hit the ground. so it's kushtly to tcurrently a quarantine at u.s. department of agriculture. as soon as it gets cleared, it's coming back. i'm sorry. >> for the vegetable garden that michelle obama was promoting, has it expanded? is much of it organic and are you really promoting heirloom varieties? >> to the best of my knowledge, it is still about the same size but maintained for the same standards. i do believe a lot if not all of it is organic but i'm not 100% sure on that:that . that is up to the discretion of the first lady. and heirloom varieties, yes. they're not the sole focus, but,
for instance, i know that during the obama administration at least there was a straong focus on growing some of thomas jefferson's favorite vegetables. >> yes, sir? is [ inaudible question ] >> that's a really good question. how was the garden's financed in first 100 years? frankly, a lot of this came out of the president's own pocket. and some of it did come from congressional appropriations. a good example i can give is, i didn't have to time to go into the details. but the conservatory and green houses burned down not once but twice. and rather than appropriate money for an iron super structure, they kept rebuilding it out of wood which, you know, it gets moist in a green house. it gets wet.
and moisture and wood don't really work. but, you know, congress controls the purse strings for things like that. okay. thank you very much. >> c-span has around the clock coverage of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic and it's all available on demand at c-span.org/coronavirus. watch white house briefings, updates from governors and state officials, track the spread throughout the u.s. and world win with interactive maps. watch online. >> up next on american history tv, author rebecca roberts on the decade leading up to the passage of the 19t