Lady Bird's Washington

(By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

John Hatcher still remembers when Lady Bird Johnson helped him launch a project to beautify his Northeast Washington neighborhood. The year was 1965, and he was 8, a third-grader at Aiton Elementary School. The youngster happened to be reading the newspaper one evening about the First Lady's efforts to make the nation look nicer.

"I wanted to beautify my area," Hatcher recalled. His mother suggested that he mention the idea to his teacher, who proposed that he write a letter to the White House. The youngster did.

He told Johnson he had seen her picture in the newspaper as she was planting azaleas. "If you would please send me some azaleas, I would plant them and then you would not have to come all the way to 50th Street," he printed neatly.

Not long afterward, on a morning in May, Walter Washington, then director of the National Capital Housing Authority, along with representatives from the first lady's office and young Mr. Hatcher's fellow third-graders, his teachers and the school principal, all showed up in the Hatcher front yard in the Lincoln Heights public housing complex. Johnson would have been there, Washington explained, but she was out of town on a beautification trip.

With photographers and reporters on hand to record the scene, Washington, the future mayor, presented the youngster with a white azalea bush. "I hope that within a few weeks, we can see this whole area blooming with flowers," Washington said in a short address.

The bush lasted a long, long time, Hatcher said.

Johnson, who died in Austin on Wednesday at 94, leaves as her best-known legacy a tradition of planting wildflowers along the nation's freeways. Not as well known some four decades later are her extensive efforts to beautify the nation's capital, efforts she considered a prototype for people across the United States. Much of her beautification remains so much a part of the city's visual landscape that it's hard to imagine it hasn't always existed. But much didn't, before Lady Bird Johnson.

Her Committee for a More Beautiful Capital planted 1,300 cherry trees at Hains Point; built fountains there and on the Ellipse at Constitution Avenue; planted millions of tulips and daffodils in parks and triangles throughout the city; and placed red oaks along Connecticut Avenue, crape myrtles along F Street and 26,392 chrysanthemums in various parks. Her plantings enlivened Washington Circle, Pershing Park, Chevy Chase Circle, Farragut Square, Meridian Hill Park and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima memorial.

All remain part of the urban landscape, as does the floral library (originally a tulip library) on the Tidal Basin.

Landscape architect Nash Castro was integral to those efforts. When he moved to Washington in 1941 to join the National Park Service, he found the city "rather blah." About the only splashes of color were around the Lincoln Memorial.

"That dramatically changed, beginning on March 9, 1965," he recalled after the death of his old friend. That was the day Johnson launched her capital beautification program in a triangle park near the U.S. Capitol, at Third Street and Independence Avenue SW.

"The park was nothing but weeds," said Castro, who in 1961 became liaison between the Park Service and the White House. Johnson and her beautification team drew up landscape plans and replaced the weeds with dogwoods, daisies and spring bulbs. The group then went to a public housing complex to plant flowers and were busy throughout the city.

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