John Ousley clearly remembers his last day working as the White House gardener.
It was in 1853, the day of the dedication ceremony for the Andrew Jackson statue in what would become Lafayette Square. At the time, the block served mostly as a garden for the White House, but Ousley recalls thinking that the coincidence of two events — his own firing and the decision to add a monument to the block — implied a transition in the ethos of the space.
He was right, of course: Lafayette Square is now anchored by the Jackson statue and four others, and the garden is gone. And Ousley, a relative outsider now, begins and ends his walking tour outside the White House there, highlighting the square’s importance to his understanding of the residence just across the street.
This, of course, isn’t actually John Ousley. On this particular twilit Sunday, it’s Chris Daileader, a local actor who resurrects Ousley for this history lesson.
Ousley’s is one of three Pickle Pea Walks, quasi-theatrical tours focusing on the White House. The walks were created by Sandra Dee Hoffman, who runs Children’s Concierge, a company that offers educational experiences for children while traveling. Families visiting Washington, she said, often tell her they want to see inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“Well, good luck,” she used to tell them.
Now, Hoffman can offer an alternative: Pickle Pea Walks — three tours that address different functions of the White House. Ousley’s walk covers the White House as a museum. Daileader also portrays President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin, whose tour discusses the White House as a home. The third tour focuses on the White House as an office, led by an actress playing Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary.
On the recent tour, Daileader, speaking in an Irish accent and wearing a beige shirt and trousers, green vest, apron and hat, leads seven visitors to spots near the White House, pointing out attractions both well known and obscure. The Washington Monument is an obvious talking point — with Daileader explaining the oft-told story of the different stones used in its assembly — but he also stops at the Butt-Millett Memorial Fountain, on the Ellipse just south of the White House, where he talks about the death of the two namesakes aboard the Titanic.
Daileader’s Ousley is quick-witted and responsive. Between stops, walkers pepper him with questions; he delivers his answers in character. Anachronistic references come up occasionally, but they’re well improvised and sometimes humorous. A stop at the statue of Alexander Hamilton at the Treasury Building more or less requires a mention of the hit Broadway musical, but Daileader also describes how Jackson used his cane to beat a would-be assassin, a self-defense he calls the Secret Service of the time.
Ousley also comes off as quite emotional, which is what Daileader says drew him to the character. Throughout the walk, he not only shares intimate details about the presidents for whom he worked but also reveals personal things. A particularly poignant moment happens toward the end of the tour, when Ousley discusses two tragedies: a fire that heavily damaged Jackson’s plantation home in Tennessee and the death of Ousley’s father.
Perhaps it comes as a surprise, then, that most of Ousley’s personal stories are fictions, created by local playwright Steven Spotswood.
“There’s very little about him in the historical record,” Spotswood says. “We knew when he was hired, when he was fired, how many kids he had. We know he emigrated from the British Isles. That’s pretty much it for him.”
But because Spotswood chose to focus this walk on the presidents’ relationship to the garden — with the garden an extension of the White House “museum” — he felt compelled to infer some narratives based on the little known about Ousley.
It pays off marvelously, as the small audience seems enthralled by the details.
Sherrita Wilkins of Silver Spring says she enjoyed learning about the presidents’ families, although she worried that her two nieces were bored. “The tour was a little above their heads,” she says.
But her 10-year-old niece, Sinae, did get a kick out of one piece of trivia: President John Quincy Adams had no bathing suit and would swim naked in the Potomac River.
At $23 per spot, the walks might seem like a splurge, especially compared with the free Smithsonian museums mere blocks away. But, as Hoffman says, a visit to the White House isn’t so easy to pull off. Your best bet might be the long-deceased gardener.
Tours begin at the Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Square across from the White House. Reserve a spot at picklepeawalks.com.
Dates: Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day.