The Jefferson Memorial and the cherry trees that surround it — those seasonal co-stars of postcards, watercolors and selfies by the million — seem to coexist with the harmony of a haiku. (White marble temple, plus pink blossoms to frame it, scream spring in D.C.)
But not always. When the two Washington icons were first introduced to each other, there were more curses than verses. The planned monument to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson sparked a massive flower-power resistance leading, eventually, to a standoff between women’s garden clubs fighting for the trees and President Franklin D. Roosevelt determined to do right by T.J. By the end, garden club militants — impractical shoes, fur wraps and all — were ready to do battle with the bulldozers.
For in 1938, it was the proposed shrine to the third president that was the interloper on the banks of the Tidal Basin. The 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees given by the government of Japan in 1912 were already beloved in Washington. The trees had transformed a swampy stretch of government plant nurseries and fish hatcheries with a much-needed pink patina of pretty. The annual mob of visitors to the spring bloom was the original March Madness in a city that was increasing in both beauty and power as the 20th century progressed.
The plan to locate a memorial to Jefferson on the southeast corner of the tree-lined Tidal Basin was greeted with consternation from the start. In fine Washington tradition, each step of the design proposal met with howls of protest, from those who worried Jefferson’s memorial would overshadow Lincoln’s, that it would violate the ever-controversial master plan for federal Washington, that it would create a traffic mess.
But mostly, residents worried that it would kill the trees. “All of Tidal Basin Cherry Trees Doomed By Jefferson Memorial Commission Plans,” warned a 1937 front-page headline in The Washington Post as plans were circulating.
Officials promised throughout that they were doing everything possible to reduce the number of displaced trees, and that many more could be planted in other corners of the Mall and throughout Washington. As the debate grew more acrimonious, they often made these assertions anonymously.
From The Post’s coverage: “In this connection, one Government official who is involved in the tangled controversy minimized the campaign, widening daily, to save Washington’s famous cherry blossom festival. ‘Plans are being made,’ he said, ‘to develop Japanese cherry groves in other parts of the city which will be far more handsome than the one at the Tidal Basin.’
"He requested that his name not be mentioned, as have all other officials who have volunteered information on the subject.”
The tree lovers were having none of it. They didn’t want “more handsome” groves elsewhere; they wanted to protect the original Yoshinos, which had come to define the setting and were considered too old to survive transplanting. Letters to the editor were filled with arbor ardor: “Please do something!” “Stop the massacre!” “Stop this vandalism on the Potomac lest our posterity condemn us!”
Sure enough, with each new proposed plan, the footprint was manipulated (cherry-mandered, you might say), and the number of imperiled trees came down.
One particular champion of the cherries was Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson, the flamboyant owner of the Washington Times-Herald. A born newspaper women — her grandfather owned the Chicago Tribune, and her brother founded the New York Daily News — Patterson may have delighted more in shaking up official Washington than in saving the cherry trees. (“I’d rather raise hell than raise a garden,” she once said in another context.)
But she ran a series of pro-Yoshino attacks on the Roosevelt administration. And as the day construction was scheduled to begin approached, she implored the city’s tree partisans to take action. On Nov. 17, 1938, 50 women marched on the White House with a petition. The next day, the protesters went further.
Roosevelt was giving a press briefing when aide Marvin McIntyre interrupted with a dispatch from the construction site: Women were padlocking themselves to the cherry trees. Others were wresting shovels from the workers’ hands and digging dirt back into the holes. Some reportedly stood, arms folded, in front of the bulldozers.
The president was not pleased, and he immediately blamed Patterson. Roosevelt told the assembled reporters that “the public has been subjected, by the owner of the newspapers, to the worst case of ‘flimflamming’ Washington has seen in a long time,” according to The Post’s account of the hijacked briefing.
Roosevelt would not be budged. It would be “the women and their chains” who would be transplanted to some other part of Potomac Park, he pledged. The memorial, meanwhile, would go where Congress had authorized it to go.
And thus, the long-building Cherry Tree Rebellion bloomed and peaked on that autumn morning. By the time National Capital Parks Superintendent C. Marshall Finnan returned to the Tidal Basin, most of the estimated 150 protesters had left. The letter writing and objections continued, but so did the building of the memorial, with a ceremonial groundbreaking the next month.
A year later, when the corner stone was placed, Roosevelt waxed admiringly of the man who had written the Declaration of Independence and would soon, in statue form, stand watch over the Tidal Basin and its surrounding cherry grove.
And Roosevelt was there again in the spring of 1943, when John Russell Pope’s Pantheon-style building was finally dedicated. Although it may have been a bitter day for the defenders of the trees, they could take heart that the finished memorial consumed far fewer than some earlier plans called for.
Even better, when they took in the scene that next spring and decades of springs to come, it all — bark and marble, blossoms and columns — looked born to share the space. A neoclassical classic was born.
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