Adrian Higgins - For Smithsonian, a Sad Souvenir of the Inauguration

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, March 26, 2009

Like millions of other Americans, Janet Draper spent the early part of Jan. 20 at home watching the historic inauguration of President Obama on television. She had more than a passing interest, however, in the record number of people struggling to reach the Mall.

As a horticulturist at the Smithsonian Institution, she has spent the past 11 years planting and tending the linear garden on the east side of the Arts and Industries Building, between Independence Avenue and the Mall. It's just six blocks from where the president took the oath of office before a crowd estimated at 1.8 million. As she watched, "I'm saying, 'I'm so glad my garden is gated off.' All was well, it was safe."

By the time the president took his oath, the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden was not only unsafe, it had been trampled to dust.

According to Draper's co-workers, a throng had moved west along Independence Avenue that morning in fevered search of access to the Mall. When they got to the garden, they saw a corridor blocked by temporary, six-foot mesh fences. First, people climbed the barriers, then they moved them, and the human inundation began.

Once inside the garden, they found similar fencing on the Mall side, and until that was also removed, the crowd spilled from the garden's winding brick path into the elevated plant beds. "People must have been frantically trying to find someplace to stand and not get trampled," Draper says.

The beds contain a wide range of choice plants that Draper, a consummate plantswoman, has been cultivating through the years. The garden, though beshadowed by the Arts and Industries Building on one side and the Hirshhorn Museum on the other, has become a favored horticultural mecca, enjoyed by office and museum workers and tourists alike.

The garden, covering a third of an acre, was open all day and became a place through which to leave the Mall.

When a shell-shocked Draper got there the next day, she found the mulch had been turned to dust, 3,000 pansies and other winter plants were gone, evergreen shrubs had been beaten in and several prized woody plants had disappeared. Evergreen perennials, such as ferns, rohdeas and Lenten roses, had been downtrodden and apparently wiped out.

For Draper, who has put so much of herself into the garden, the damage was devastating. Co-workers tried to prepare her for the sight, but when she entered the garden the next day "I was stunned, speechless." More than a tear or two has been shed.

On a recent day, she moves away some fresh mulch at the base of an elm tree to reveal a stump. It used to be a handsome evergreen shrub named illicium. Even amid the tears, there is a sort of dark humor: She leads me to a sweetbox shrub, which should have glossy green leaves and fragrant white flowers but is now a mess of tan twigs. "It's a new variety called brownii," she jokes.

There are a number of silver linings to this cloud. Draper is relieved that no one was injured in the stampede and recognizes that the damage was not malicious.

Her friends in the garden world have offered help with pledges of plants and donations. The garden's regulars have been consoling her and offering to pitch in to replant. Top executives at the Smithsonian have even made personal donations for the garden's recovery.

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