The gardens & grounds at the White House evolved slowly as the nation grew. At first, the new home for the president was referred to as President’s Palace, President’s Mansion, or the President’s House. Initially President George 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 On September 8th, 1791 of the Commissioners (Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Carroll & David Stuart) decided "to name the streets of the Federal City alphabetically one way & numerically the other from the Capitol, & that the name of the City & Territory shall be the City of Washington & the Territory of Columbia."
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 the headstrong 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.
The 100 square mile plot selected as the new seat of government was not unclaimed land. There were farms, estates & towns that were being swallowed up by United States government. Nineteen original landowners were negotiated with, directly by George Washington at the end of March, 1791. After acquiring all the land for the new federal district, Washington wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. "The terms entered into by me on the part of the United States, with the landholders of Georgetown & Carrollsburg are, all land from Rock Creek along the river to the Eastern Branch, & so upwards to or above the Ferry, including a breadth of about one & one-half miles, the whole containing from three to five thousand acres, is ceded to the Public on condition, that, when the whole shall be surveyed & laid off as a city (which Major L’ Enfant is not directed to do), the present proprietors shall retain every other lot, & for such part of the land as may be taken for public use, for squares, walks, & so forth, they shall be allowed at the rate of 25 pounds per acre, the public having the right to reserve such parts of the wood on the land as may be thought necessary to be preserved for ornament, the landholders to have the use & profits of all the grounds until the city is laid off into lots & sale is made of those lots, which, by this agreement, becomes public property. Nothing is to be allowed for the ground which may be occupied as streets or alleys." This generous contractual clause granting the landowners continued use of the property created problems. The farmers continued to raise their crops on land now owned by the government, preventing the proper laying of planned streets & roads. One of these farmers was particularly troublesome & labeled obstinate by President Washington. David Burnes had approximately 700 acres coveted by the government, including the land on which the White House currently sits. Burnes was the recipient of numerous letters from the Commissioners, imploring him to cease growing his crops on land that was laid out to become Pennsylvania Avenue.
1803 White House by Nicholas King in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
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." 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.
We learn from Margaret Bayard Smith's diary, published in 1906, the Jefferson "was very anxious to improve the ground around the President's House; but as Congress would make no appropriation for this and similar objects, he was obliged to abandon the idea, and content himself with enclosing it with a common stone wall and sewing it down in grass. Afterwards when the Grisly Bears, brought by Capt Lewis from the far west, (where he had been to explore the course of the Missouri,) were confined within this enclosure, a witty federalist called it the President's bear-garden."
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. Smith wrote that "Jefferson's design to have planted them exclusively with trees, shrubs and flowers indigenous to our native soil. He had a long list made out in which they were arranged according to their forms and colours and the seasons in which they flourished. To him it would have been a high gratification to have improved and ornamented our infant City. But the only thing he could effect, was planting Pennsylvania Avenue with Lombard Poplars, which he designed only for a temporary shade, until Willow oaks, (a favorite tree of his) could attain a sufficient size. But this plan had to be relinquished as well as many others from the want of funds."
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."
1810 Etching of the White House
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.
Burning of Washington on August 24, 1814 by William Strickland.
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."
1814 White House on Fire. William Strickland, engraver. Library of Congress.
The Washington Times wrote on August 23, 1914, of British Major General Ross, that he “was loath to march on the Capital and to burn the public buildings after he occupied the city. Indeed his manner while here was apologetic and the resident at whose house he staid said that he did not smile while in the city.”
A representation of the capture of the City of Washington by the British Forces August 24, 1814
Many of his fellow Englishmen were upset about the burning of Washington DC. as noted in the London Statesman at the time, "Is it quite true that the expedition to Washington will meet with universal approbation? The Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the Capitol at Washington." The Madison administration also did not believe that the British would attack the District of Columbia. For more than 2 months there were persistent rumors that the British would attack Washington, but the President & his Cabinet did not take the warning seriously. On one occasion, President Madison asked "What the devil would the British do in Washington?" adding that Baltimore was their true objective.
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.
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."
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.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.
1820 Painted depiction of the south face Baroness Hyde de Neuville
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.
Washington City, 1820 Baroness Hyde Neuville.
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.
1822 Illustration of the White House (New York Public Library)
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.
1833 Painted depiction of the south face of the White House
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.
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."
1846 First Known Photo of the White House
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.
1848 Washington, View from the president's 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."
1855 The north face with iron fence and statue of Thomas Jefferson (Library of Congress - Bohn's Hand Book of Washington)
White House Stables photo from Library of Congress by Lewis Emory Walker in 1857 or 1858.
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.
The White House conservatory in 1857 from the Library of Congress Later replaced by the Executive Office Building
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.
1881 Etching of the north face of the White House
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 The White House
After the Civil War, Julia Grant began the tradition of White House garden parties. She 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 today evolved from Downing's earlier plans.
1890 Photo of the Proliferation of Greenhouses at the White House during the 19th Century.
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.
1896 Couple on bicycle for two. The South Portico of the White House, Washington, D.C., in the background. 77-RP-7347-4. (National Archives)
1897 View from White House over front lawn from 2nd Floor Bedroom
1900 Hand-tinted photo of the White House north face
March 4th, 1917 Woodrow Wilson’s 2nd Inauguration Women picketing White House National Women’s Party demanding a woman’s right to vote.
1919 Sheep grazing at the White House