Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Better Homes and Gardens

She may not be the first of the First Ladies to start a garden or open the White House up to the public, but I have learned that I owe gratitude to Pat Nixon. It was she who first opened the White House to the public twice a year for the Spring and Fall Garden Tours; it is because of her (and a friend who had tickets) that the Secret Service opened their wrought iron gates and let me in to see the garden a few weekends ago.

As Richard Nixon noted in his memoirs when Pat Nixon entered the White House she did so without “breaking stride.” Mrs. Nixon committed herself immediately to the building and its grounds, adding more antique American furnishings than any other First Lady—it was she who had the Gilbert Stuart copy of John Quincy Adams replaced by the real McCoy.

Mrs. Nixon first opened the White House up for the garden tours in 1972. Over 10,000 people attended, the event was a success. Despite the initial confusion over why there was a Rose Garden that in fact had no roses, over the years the popularity of the garden tour expanded. This autumn, attendance peaked at 25,000. However, attendance was particularly high this year due to Michelle Obama’s “Victory Garden” aka the White House Kitchen Garden. Though she never had the appeal of a Kennedy (Jacqueline Kennedy garden above left), Mrs. Nixon preferred to work quietly behind the scenes. She added the exterior lights to the White House, so it could be seen glowing at night on Pennsylvania Avenue. She changed the White House Tours, adding speakers while people stood in line so that visitors might learn the history of the house while waiting.

Having never attended a tour of the White House, this is the closest I’ve been to the Oval Office. I was surprised to see how high the land sits. From the backyard you can see the Jefferson Monument clearly, something you can’t do from Constitution Avenue, which sits below the South lawn and the Ellipse (see below center). Also, the Andrew Jackson Magnolia!!!!! Planted in 1830 and dedicated to his deceased wife Rachel!!!! It’s still there (see above right to the left of the portico)! Amazing! Yes, I did have thoughts of taking a leaf from it. No, I did not take a leaf because I feared crossing the Secret Service and National Park Service. I made the right choice.

Sources: Bonnie Angelo, Time Magazine, “Pat Nixon: The Woman in the Cloth Coat,” July 5 , 1993.

Jonathan Movroydis,
Pat Nixon and America’s White House, 2009.

White House Historical Association. “The White House Gardens and Grounds” (Fall 2009).

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