Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Outside the White House: The Rose Garden

John F. Kennedy, Jr., April 26, 1963. Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain
Roses have been cultivated at the White House for at least a hundred and fifty years. Before the Civil War, a complex of buildings, such as a milk house, ice house, servant quarters, and offices stood where the West Wing is today, outbuildings catering to the First Family's needs. In addition, there stood several greenhouses--growing food and flowers--including a "rose house." 

File:Green houses, White House, Washington, D.C. LCCN2012646240.jpg
White House Greenhouses, 1889. Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, photographer. Public Domain.
The rose house was a rectangular glass structure, and inside, roses were planted in rows, watered by pipes. The roses were utilized to decorate the White House.
May 20, 1961. Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain
In 1902, the outbuildings and greenhouses were removed to make way for the West Wing, and Edith Roosevelt created a "Colonial Garden" for the First Family's personal enjoyment. She had sweet peas, quince, and black-eyed susans planted here, as well as jasmine, which she and President Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed on warm evenings as they sat in rocking chairs on the South Portico.

In 1913, First Lady Ellen Loise Axson Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, established the space as an rose garden. Other presidential families altered the garden to suit their preferences, but roses have been a constant bloom here for over a hundred years, which is how it got the name, Rose Garden.

Image result for the white house rose garden
The Rose Garden of the White House covered in snow, Nov. 15, 2018 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead).
In 1961, however, President Kennedy wanted the garden to be updated into something more than a private family garden. He and the First Lady had recently visited Europe, and he'd noted that the White House didn't have as quality a garden as many that he'd seen in France, England or Austria. He felt a beautiful garden at the official residence was imperative, and assigned Rachel Lambert Mellon the task of renewing the Rose Garden.
Aerial view of the Rose Garden, July 8, 1962. Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain.

Mellon got to work, ensuring a 50-by-100 foot lawn would be central in the garden, a size large enough for a thousand people to attend receptions or ceremonies, but small enough to be covered by a tent, if necessary. The lawn was bordered by flower beds of American specimens, planted in a French style. Each flower bed is planted with Katherine crabapples, Littleleaf lindens, and thyme hedges. The garden is anchored at each of its four corners by Magnolia trees found along the banks of the Tidal Basin.
Image result for the white house rose garden
Rose Garden in Spring. Public Domain
Among the roses, seasonal flowers are added for color and variety. In the spring, jonquils, grape hyacinth, and tulips lend a cheery aspect. In the autumn, flowering kale and chrysanthemum bloom until early winter. The garden had become more formal, as well as brighter.

File:Oval Office view from Rose Garden.jpg
George W. Bush's dog Barney frolics in the Rose Garden, Autumn 2006. Public Domain.
In Kennedy's mind, however, the garden would no longer be simply for the First Family's enjoyment, but would serve public needs, as well. Presidents Wilson, Hoover, and Coolidge used the space to meet informally with press, to meet guests, or be photographed, but Kennedy wanted the garden to accommodate more functions. To that end, steps at the west end near the Oval Office were redesigned so they could also function as a platform or stage. Across the garden, a flagstone terrace was laid beneath one of the Magnolias where the President could hold a small luncheon or sit with guests.

To that end, Kennedy welcomed Project Mercury astronauts in the garden. Sports figures are often hosted here, including the Stanley Cup champions the Caroline Hurricanes after their victory in 2006, by George W. Bush. Numerous news conferences take place in the garden, as well as dinners and ceremonies. 

File:Mercury Astronauts Receiving the Collier Trophy - GPN-2002-000085.jpg
October 10, 1963. NASA Administrator James E. Webb (center) cites the space achievements of the Project Mercury Astronauts who received the 1963 Collier Trophy Award in a ceremony held at the White House on October 10, 1963 in the Rose Garden. President John F. Kennedy (left) and Vice President Lyndon Johnson accompanied Webb at the ceremony. Five of the Mercury Seven astronauts are visible in the row behind James Webb. They are (starting from JFK's left): Alan Shepard, Donald "Deke" Slayton, John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, and Scott Carpenter. Public Domain.
Perhaps one of the most famous uses of the Rose Garden was the 1971 marriage of Tricia Nixon to Edward F. Cox.

Image result for the white house rose garden
Public Domain.
While the Rose Garden is often used for public events, it nevertheless remains a space of beauty, contemplation, and relaxation available for the First Family's use.
Image result for the white house rose garden
President Obama strolls through the Rose Garden. (Note: a play structure for his daughters is visible to the left of the magnolia tree.) Public Domain.


Susanne Dietze is the RWA RITA-nominated author of over a dozen romances, including A Mother for His Family and the newly-released Cameo Courtships. You can learn more about her on her website,


  1. This is one of my favorite posts so far regarding the White House!!! Thanks for the continuing tour!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Connie! I'd love to spend some time enjoying the Rose Garden, wouldn't you? It's so lovely!

      Have a great day.

  2. I love gardens. The pictures you posted were beautiful. It must be so nice to walk around and enjoy the Rose Garden whenever you wanted-and never have to weed it. :)

    1. The gardeners are clearly so talented and offer amazing care to the White House gardens! I would love to stroll through the garden, too, and you're right--never weed it!