On Friday afternoon, the word went out through the Fellows’ network that the White House gardens were open for tours on Friday and Saturday AND if you flashed your Federal ID on Friday afternoon, you could jump to the front of the line. How cool was that?
I wasn’t able to go until Saturday morning, and I personally believe that the priority treatment was all about passing through security. If you show proof that you go in and out of security all day, as you do in most Federal buildings, then you can be trusted not to slow up the line. Yes, I’ve become a security snob.
Not knowing if the free tickets would be limited and would be gone early, Maggie, who is my neighbor, my fellow Fellow, and a kindred adventurer, was willing to get up early to be part of the first tour. It turned out that the groups of people allowed in were quite large, but the grounds are extensive enough that it wasn’t too packed while we were there.
The first garden at the White House was started by John Adams, who unfortunately was promptly defeated by Thomas Jefferson and therefore never got to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of his labors. The famed landscape architect, Fredrick Law Olmstead, whose projects include Central Park in New York City, the Fenway (the park, not the baseball field!) in Boston, and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, helped Franklin D. Roosevelt with the grand design of the South Lawn. Once I knew that, I could see Olmstead’s influence in the space that looks like it sprang from nature, even though not just the trees but also some of the contours of the land were carefully planned and executed by humans.
Olmstead’s design has been further embellished by two formal gardens- the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden between the Residence and the East Wing, and the Rose Garden between the Residence and the West Wing. The tour also featured a number of photographs of Presidents or First Couples planting commemorative trees, which have additionally shaped the landscape. The First Families’ recreational tastes are also expressed in the garden. The basketball court and the swimming pool were masked by trees, but the putting green and the playground for Sasha and Malia Obama were both prominently located.
Once Maggie and I passed through security, we were aware of subtle signs that we were getting closer to sensitive areas. As we started the tour, the official personnel wore badges indicating that they were volunteers or interns. By the time we were at the White House, it was Secret Service personnel who were making sure that the tourists did not get too close. The guard at the playground was quite friendly in his own security-conscious way. In pointing out one statue at the edge of the trees, he referred to it as “the Secret Service Reindeer.” When one lady in the crowd asked if it had a camera inside, he deadpanned, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I can’t answer that. It’s classified.”
I also loved the jazz band that was playing for us. Somehow the formality of the uniforms and the informality of jazz made a great contrast.
Having stood on the grounds, I finally understand the layout and relationships among the structures. I had learned on the Segway tour that the White House has a North entrance and a South entrance so no one has to go through the “back” door. The center section, which is what we think of as the White House, is the Residence. The Oval Office is nearby in a low building that is the West Wing, and only a small part of the oval shape is visible from outside. My friendly guard explained that it is not possible to get from the Oval Office to the Residence without going outside, so the President’s usual path is outside down the colonnade, which is often captured in movies or by cameramen walking VERY slowly backwards as a reporter interviews the President.
First Lady, Michelle Obama, following the example of Pat Nixon, was the force behind giving the public an opportunity to visit the White House grounds. With the help of local students, Mrs. Obama also created a kitchen garden on the grounds, which was the first vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden during World War II. The garden was not only beautifully planted, it was also producing a considerable harvest, which is used in meals for the First Family and for official events. The remainder is donated to a local soup kitchen. The raised beds are each fitted with rails on the sides so cold frames can be installed on top to allow the garden to produce throughout the winter as well. It took me a moment to remember that although that isn’t practical in Connecticut, I’m much further south now. I was particularly fascinated by two of the beds that were producing gorgeous heritage beans. These were the Jefferson beds, and the seeds and starter plants were brought in from Monticello.
One other interesting piece of trivia I picked up on the Segway tour was that whoever was President when the National mall was being constructed was a big fan of Thomas Jefferson. Although the Washington Monument was intended to be in the exact center of the mall, foundation issues with the swampy land forced it to be shifted slightly more toward the Capitol. Thus the Jefferson Memorial is visible from the White House, and the standing statue of Jefferson can keep his eye on the sitting President.