White House Rose Garden History
Highlights of the famous White House rose garden, from its beginnings as a stable yard to present day.
The White House rose garden is known round the world, seen in TV news as a setting for press conferences and receiving foreign dignitaries. The spot has a long history, however, beginning with George Washington’s sitting of the White House in 1792.
Today’s rose garden lies in the ell of the west wing, making it a semi-enclosed space with building walls on two sides. The earliest use of the spot was for a stable. Since the windows of the State Dining Room overlook the ell, the stable was rather hastily relocated.
In 1835, President Andrew Jackson turned the ruins of the stable into an ‘orangery,’ a structure that housed potted citrus trees. It was not a full-fledged greenhouse, as it had a solid roof, but the orange trees drank in the winter sun through full-length windows that faced south.
Martin van Buren was Jackson’s successor; a president who loved gardening so much that it became a political scandal when opponents got hold of the books and revealed how much money was being spent on the president’s private garden.
In the 1850s, full glasshouses replaced the orangeries. Between the Civil War and World War I, Americans fell for the Victorian craze of indoor gardening, and it became the national pastime. A rose house was established in the ell, an indoor production garden of flowers for cutting. This Victorian greenhouse was actually the first rose garden to inhabit the spot.
When President Theodore Roosevelt began his remodeling project, he was heavily influenced by architect Charles McKim. The architect insisted that the colonial integrity of Washington’s day could not be restored and preserved with the glasshouses there, so the rambling maze of greenhouses was removed. Mrs. Edith Roosevelt promptly planned a “colonial garden” to complement the remodeling.
Mrs. Roosevelt’s garden was intricately patterned, consisting of boxwood-bordered beds brimming with old-fashioned favorites like hollyhocks, sweet peas, black-eyed Susans, and sweet Williams. It replicated the cheerful exuberance of a colonial cottage garden. However, it was replaced in 1913, when Ellen Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, planted a rose garden on the spot immediately upon entering the White House.
The Wilson garden was the complete opposite of the Roosevelt cottage garden. It was described as “rigid, formal, and green, with sharp corners and long vistas, in the manner of 17th century Italian gardens.” She filled it with choice specimen roses.
From that point on, the rose garden remained largely unchanged until the Kennedy administration. Because it adjoined the Oval Office, President Kennedy envisioned the space as an outdoor room, a place where official ceremonies could be held. A plan was drawn, and construction of the modern-day rose garden began in 1961. While the earth was being turned, many relics were found, including horseshoes from the stable and broken bits of pot from the glasshouses.