How the White House Rose Garden Became the Most Famous Garden in the World

By: Wendy Bowman  | 

Rose Garden
Roses bloom in the iconic White House Rose Garden Wednesday, May 29, 2019. The White House/Flickr

Back in 1902, First Lady Edith Roosevelt (wife of President Theodore Roosevelt) took it upon herself to convert an area of the White House grounds that once housed stables for horses and carriages into a classic colonial garden as part of the Roosevelt renovation. In 1913, First Lady Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (first wife of President Woodrow Wilson) followed her lead by replacing what had become known as the West Garden with a Rose Garden, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on to appoint famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (son of the creator of New York's Central Park) to freshen up the design of the Rose Garden in 1935. In 1961, under the direction of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, amateur gardener Rachel Lambert "Bunny" Mellon was asked to designed the current garden, which led to what is known today as the Kennedy Rose Garden, adjacent to the Oval Office and Cabinet Room.

"It was part of a general landscape redesign of the White House complex," says Dan Roberts, a liberal arts and history professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, who also serves as executive producer and host of the syndicated history radio program "A Moment in Time," in an email interview. "The Rose Garden balanced the structure with the East Garden, or Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, on the other side of living quarters in the central and original building of the White House. This is essentially the Rose Garden we know today."


How Did Bunny Mellon Become Involved?

It all began at a summer picnic at Mellon's Cape Cod beach house that included President and Mrs. Kennedy as guests, according to an interview Mellon conducted for the White House Historical Association. "Hardly had the President came ashore from his boat when he suggested we sit down and discuss a garden for the White House," she recalled in the interview. "He and Mrs. Kennedy had just returned from a state visit to France, followed by stops in England and Austria. The president had noted that the White House had no garden equal in quality or attractiveness to the gardens that he had seen and in which he had been entertained in Europe. There he had recognized the importance of gardens surrounding an official residence and their appeal to the sensibilities of all people."

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President John F. Kennedy with Bunny Mellon on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, discussing the idea for a rose garden at the White House. (Eunice Shriver is at right, foreground.)
Photographer unknown. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis Personal Papers. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

President Kennedy's goal, according to Mellon: "He wanted a garden to appeal to the most discriminating taste, yet a garden that would hold a thousand people for a ceremony."


Bunny Mellon's Vision

According to her interview with the White House Historical Association, Mellon envisioned a 50-by-100-foot (15-meter-by-30-meter) lawn — large enough to accommodate 1,000 people for ceremonial activities and receptions, and small enough to be covered by a tent — flanked in all four corners by magnolia trees, and 12-foot-wide (4-meter-wide) borders planted with smaller trees, roses and other flowers (including flowers used during Thomas Jefferson's period in office) on either side of the large lawn. The plans also called for a platform on the west end of the garden, near the Oval Office, and a flagstone terrace on the east end to serve as a place where the president could relax and entertain guests or host small luncheons.

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Bunny Mellon's Mar. 23, 1961 sketch of planting ideas for the Rose Garden.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis Personal Papers

To execute her design, Mellon sought out Irvin Williams, head gardener of Washington's Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and then asked Jackie to arrange for Williams to be transferred to the White House as chief gardener, a prestigious job that he held for almost 50 years. The garden was unveiled on April 24, 1962, and the first ceremonial occasion held there in July 1962 featured the swearing in of Anthony Celebrezze, the former mayor of Cleveland, as the new secretary of health, education and welfare.

Mellon's design created the White House Central Lawn so familiar to today's TV viewers, according to Roberts. "It is surrounded by flower beds anchored by crabapple and little-leaved linden trees," he says. "Hedges of thyme and boxwood are intermingled with flower beds filled with the garden's signature rose varieties: Queen Elizabeth, Pascali, Pat Nixon and King's Ransom. Blooming bulbs of jonquil, daffodils and tulips burst into verdant color in springtime, and summertime annuals paint the flower beds with rich hues until fall when flowering kale and chrysanthemums enliven the garden with color almost until early days of winter."

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Construction work in progress in the Rose Garden in 1961.
Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston


Historic Events in the Rose Garden

While Kennedy was in office, he used the garden to host Peace Corps volunteers before they left for Ghana and Tanganyika; invited the award-winning University of Arkansas choir to join him there; welcomed Algerian premier Ahmed Ben Bella with a 21-gun salute; and greeted the astronauts of Project Mercury. During the Cuban missile crisis, the Rose Garden also served as a dramatic backdrop, as he and advisers devised a strategy to avoid a nuclear war with Russia.

Today, the Rose Garden is kept as a private reserve for the president to relax, read, converse with his aides and engage in contemplation, according to Roberts. But, through the years, he adds, presidents also have used the space to showcase diplomatic, social and political events — making important public proclamations, holding press conferences, greeting significant guests, introducing political allies and appointees, rallying allies for partisan battles, and celebrating Congressional and national victories.

Among some of the most memorable activities to take place there: "Tricia Nixon was wed to Edward F. Cox in spectacular nuptials in 1971," Roberts says, "and President Bill Clinton presided over the declaration of peace between Israel and Jordan in 1994."

On Monday, July 27, 2020, first lady Melania Trump's office released a statement announcing a massive renovation of the White House Rose Garden.

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President Obama walks through the White House Rose Garden.
The White House