Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Today in History - Washington DC Incorporated - History of 19th-Century White House Gardens

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On this day in 1802, Washington DC was incorporated as a city. And it is a great opportunity to look at the development of the gardens around the White House and the United States Capitol.

Initially President Geoge Washington (1789–1797) chose French engineer & architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825) to draw a plan of the city of Washington, envisioning a setting of terraced formal gardens descending to Tiber Creek.

1791 Thomas Jefferson, [Proposed Plan of Federal City], March 1791, Ink on paper, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress.

When Washington & L'Enfant mapped out the "President's Park," in 1791, Washington sketched reflecting pools & terraced gardens falling toward the water from an executive palace rivaling Versailles on 82 acres. When finally completed, the White House was about a quarter of the size L'Enfant dreamed of, but gardens would surround the residence.

1792 Pierre Charles L'Enfant, Plan of the City of Washington, March 1792, Library of Congress

Washington expressed a desire to plant an American species botanical garden. To expand the grounds around the proposed White House, Washington purchased the land for what is now the South lawn from a tobacco planter named Davy Burns, while the North grounds originally belonged to the Pierce family before falling into the hands of speculators.

The cornerstone of the President’s House was laid October 13, 1792. When the White House was first occupied in 1800, the site of the South Lawn was an open meadow gradually descending to a large marsh, the Tiber Creek, & to the Potomac River beyond.

c 1793 Elevation of the north side of the White House, by James Hoban. Maryland Historical Society.

After Washington dismissed L’Enfant for insubordination, the design of the White House was thrown open to an architectural competition in 1792. James Hoban (1758–1831), an Irish-born & trained architect then living in Charleston, South Carolina, won the design competition for the White House. Hoban immigrated to the United States working as an architect & builder in Philadelphia & Charleston, from 1785 until his move to the nation’s capital in 1792.

1800 Etching of Original design of White House. Library of Congress.

When John Adams (1797–1801), the 1st President to live in Hoban's proposed mansion, moved into the house in 1800, one Washingtonian wrote that the grounds were "at present in great confusion, having on it old brick kilns, pits to contain water used by the brick makers."

1803 White House by Nicholas King in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

One of practical President Adam's first suggestions was to plant a vegetable garden to cut the growing food bill for the White House. Unfortunately Adams had headed back to Massachusettes, before his garden was planted.

c 1804 Jefferson's White House. Library of Congress.

Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) noted in 1803, "The surrounding Ground was chiefly used for Brick yards, it was enclosed in a rough post and rail fence." Presidents were faced with a scraggly, unpromising vista of tobacco-depleted clay soil scattered with abandoned workers' cottages bordered by a malarial swamp. The greatest majority of presidential landscaping efforts would be consumed with grading & filling projects throughout the 19th century.

1807 (1824) Benjamin Henry Latrobe's South Face Proposal to Jefferson. Library of Congress.

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson (1801-09) began planning improvements for the White House gardens & grounds, including a stone wall around the house. Jefferson, who was always arranging & rearranging the grounds at Monticello, was the first president to devise an overall landscape plan for the grounds. The plan included a fence, as well as grading & planting the south grounds for more privacy. Jefferson kept geraniums, strawberries, figs and orange trees in pots & boxes in the windows of his office.

1807 (1824) Plans for the White House East Front by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1807. Library of Congress.

Jefferson wanted groves of trees, and he picked the location for the flower garden. Fences & walls were eventually built, where he had specified. He also directed the planting of numerous trees between 1802 -1806. Jefferson completed grading of the South Lawn, building up mounds on either side of a central lawn, similar to the 100-foot diameter mounds he built at his villa retreat Poplar Forest for his retirement in 1809.

1807 Charles Jensen. Stranger in America. Frontispiece. Library of Congress.

President Jefferson & his surveyor of public buildings, Benjamin Latrobe located a triumphal arch as a main entry point to the grounds, just southeast of the White House. Jefferson's arc of triumph was flanked by two memorial weeping willow trees. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth ... but though an old man, I am but a young gardener," he wrote to a friend from his Poplar Forest retreat in 1811.

1807 Latrobe White House Library of Congress.

William Stebbins described the grounds around the White House in Washington D. C. in 1810, "Extended my walk alone to the President's house: -- a handsome edifice, tho' like the capitol of free stone: the south yard principally made ground, bank'd up by a common stone wall: a plain picket fence on each side, the passage way to the house on the north: --some of the pickets lying on the ground."

Hostilities with Great Britain, begun in 1812, culminated in the invasion of Washington on August 24, 1814. British troops entered the defenseless city; ate a dinner prepared for the fleeing President at the White House; and then torched the building, destroying all but the outer walls and most of the plantings.

Paul Jennings, President James Madison's (1809–1817) personal slave who witnessed the burning, reports that it was the Madison's White House gardener, and not Dolley Madison who saved the portrait of George Washington from burning with the White House.

Jennings wrote, It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment.

John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President's gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President's party.


Jefferson's 1809 Poplar Forest with earthen mounds planted with trees subsituting for traditonal pavilions and lines of trees forming Palladian“wings” or “hyphens.” (Thank you C. Allan Brown.)

At the urging of James Madison, Congress decided to rebuild rather than move the capital to another city. Hoban returned to reconstruct the President’s House, as it had been before the fire. President James Monroe (1817–1825) moved into a new house in the autumn of 1817.

While the White House was being rebuilt after the 1814 fire, James Monroe increased tree plantings on the grounds based on plans by architect Charles Bulfinch. Monroe (1817–25) named the first "Gardener to the President of the United States," Charles Bizet, giving him a salary of $450 a year.

When Bizet left the White House, he went to work for James Madsion at his private home Montpelier where he was paid $700 a year. A number of President Madison's slaves were trained as assistant gardeners, one of whom took over as head gardener, when Bizet returned home to France. Madison's garden contained a mixture of vegetables, fruit trees, flowers, & ornamental shrubs.

Mary Cutts, Dolley Madison's niece, left a description of Madison's Montpelier garden, "At some distance from the house was the garden laid off in the shape of a horseshoe by an experienced French gardener, who lived many years on the place; his name was Beazee; he and his wife came to Virginia at the time of the French Revolution and left Mr. Madison shortly before his death to return to "La belle France." They were great favorites with the negroes, some of whom they taught to speak French. Madame Beazee contrived a hat to shade Mrs. Madison's eyes; it was hideous, but she liked it and when she took her morning rambles always called for her "Beazee bonet."


"The choicest fruits, especially pears, were raised in abundance, figs bore their two crops every summer, which Mr. Madison liked to gather himself arbors of grapes, over which he exercised the same authority. It was a paradise of roses and other flowers, to say nothing of the strawberries, and vegetables; every rare plant and fruit was sent to him by his admiring friends, who knew his taste, and they were carefully studied and reared by the gardener and his black aids."

1814 White House on Fire. William Strickland, engraver. Library of Congress.

The front of the White House was used as a common for fairs & parades until 1822, when Pennsylvania the avenue was cut through the north side of the President’s Park & soon after a public park was established.

1814 A view of the president's house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th of August 1814. Library of Congress.

The federal government used Charles Bulfinch’s (1763–1844) planting scheme for a thick grove of trees for the square north of the White House & named the park in honor of General Lafayette in 1824-1825.

1818 Robert King, A Map of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia, Library of Congress.

When John Quincy Adams followed Monroe into office 1825-1829, he replaced gardener Bizet with John Ousley, who remained the White House gardener for the next 27 years. Adams was the first President to actually develop the flower gardens, that Jefferson had earlier plotted out.

Instead of using seedlings as Jefferson had for his groves, Adams was first to plant ornamental trees. As an avid gardener himself, Adams personally enjoyed planting seedlings that included fruit trees, herbs & vegetables.

In the summer of 1827, the president wrote in his diary, "In this small garden of not less than two acres there are forest and fruit trees, shrubs, hedges, (succulent) vegetables, kitchen and medicinal herbs, hothouse plants, flowers and weeds to the amount I conjecture of at least one thousand."

1820 The White House in 1820, a painting by George Catlin.

Adams himself planted herbs & vegetables, & after Congress passed a resolution to encourage planting mulberry trees as a way of fostering a silkworm industry, he planted a white mulberry on the White House grounds determined to nurture silkworms. While a U.S. silk industry never took root, one of Adams' plantings did, surviving until 1990.

Washington City, 1820 Baroness Hyde Neuville.

Adams, who had served abroad as a diplomat, solicited plant specimens from consulates around the world as well as planting the 5 varieties of oak native to D.C. Adams was attracted to the idea of establishing a collection of uniquely American species on the grounds.

1830s Detail of Lithograph by D. W. Kellog & Co. Library of Congress.

During the 1830's President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) became a big supporter of the White House gardens hiring several laborers to assist White House gardener John Ousley. During Jackson's term elm, maple, & sycamore trees were planted for the first time. He had walks laid out among garden beds filled with foxglove, dragonhead, sweet William and daisies.

The famous Jackson magnolias were added to the White House grounds in 1835, which he planted in honor of his wife Rachel, who died shortly before he took office in 1829. The oldest surviving trees on the property now are those two southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) at the east end of what is now the Rose Garden.

1830s Garden Beds at the White House. Library of Congress.

About this time, square & rectangular garden beds were no longer in fashion. They could be oval, circle, diamond, star, crescent, or any shape other than a rectangle or square. Flowers were planted for their botanical significance.

Reportedly Jackson enjoyed naked morning dips in the Potomac, followed by weeding in the his garden. Perhaps because he actually worked in the White House gardens, Jackson spared no expense in providing house gardeners with the best grub hoes & mole traps, and it was during Jackson's term that the grounds began to look presentable.

In 1835, after a fire at Mount Vernon, George Washington's descendants presented Jackson with a feather palm that the first president had grown from seed. Jackson built an orangery to store the memorial plant. Citrus fruits for medicinal & culinary purposes shared the warm new space with pots of camellias, which were brought in to decorate White House parties.

Politics invaded the garden during Martin Van Buren's term from 1837 to 1841. Leafing through White House bills, Rep. Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania declared that Van Buren had been busy "constructing fountains, paving footways, planting, transplanting, pruning and dressing horse chestnuts, lindens, beds and borders, training and irrigating honey suckles, trumpet creepers, primroses, lady slippers...and preparing beautiful bouquets for the palace saloons."

1848 August Kollner (1813-1906) The President's House showing the statue.

President James K. Polk (1845–1849) placed a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson by P. J. David d'Angers on the North Lawn in 1848, where it stood for 27 years before being moved to the Capitol. Polk saw a parallel between himself & the earlier expansionist. The statue stood in the center of the lawn, which was cut regularly & rolled & seasonally decorated with flower beds. Cut off from the driveway by a fence, this small garden was open to the public every day.

1846 First Known Photo of the White House

John Watt was appointed "Gardener for the Kitchen garden belonging to the Presidents House" in 1852. Two years later, in May 1854, he was given control over all the laborers on the grounds of the Presidential Mansion, causing the Public Gardener to entreat the Commissioner of Public Buildings and Parks to write Congress to fund additional staff.

"... having ascertained that Mr. Watt was the most competent person to take charge of the grounds around the President's Mansion, I appointed him to that duty, he still receiving only the pay of a laborer [$40 month]. This involved the necessity of dividing the force under Mr. Maher (the Public Gardener). Nine of the men were left under him, and the other six were placed under Mr. Watt."

Beginning in the term of President Franklin Pierce (1853–57), the president's expanding hothouses were emblematic of the nations's indoor gardening craze, eventually spilling over with the botanical specimins from Commodore Perry's adventures in China and Japan.

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

In 1850, the noted landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852) developed a landscape plan for the President’s House & the Mall. He attempted to soften the geometry of the L'Enfant plan, incorporating a semicircular southern boundary & some serpentine paths. He enlarged the South Lawn, creating a large circular ground he named the "Parade or President's Park" borderd by densely planted shrubs and trees.

Gardener Watt ran into some controversy just as the Civil War was heating up. He became friends with Mary Todd Lincoln and agreed to help her hide some of her excessive spending by inflating the gardening bills he charged to the government to such an extent that the president had to be informed. Lincoln was incensed, refunded his wife's excesses, and fired Watts in early 1862.

In 1867, garden responsibilities for the White House were transfered to the US Army Corps of Engineers. By 1871, Downing's plan for tree planting was initiated, as Ulysses S. Grant extends the grounds south beyond Jefferson's stone wall and had a great round pool dug into the South Lawn.

1890 Photo of the Proliferation of Greenhouses at the White House during the 19th Century.

After the Civil War, Julia Grant began the tradition of White House garden parties and substituted floral bouquets for social calls. Her husband added a billiard room between the greenhouse and the mansion. But the gardens surrounding the White House even today evolved from Downing's earlier plans.

Hundreds of trees were planted under Rutherford B. Hayes, who initiated the tradition of plantings commemorative trees to represent each President and state. Hayes employed Henry Pfister as his gardener. Pfister remainded through the early 20th century, helping Edith Roosevelt design and install a colonial style garden.

Undated Photo of Grass Cutting on the White House Lawn.
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