A new exhibit at the White House Historical Association uncovers some insights into the iconic Rose Garden just outside the Oval Office.
The special spot depicted in “The Kennedy Rose Garden, Traditionally American” has been an important backdrop to history for every president since John F. Kennedy envisioned a “traditionally American” garden both for official ceremonies, diplomatic photo ops and first-family downtime.
“It’s a stage for American traditions. It’s our outdoor White House. And in the news so much takes place there,” says John S. Botello, curator at the White House Historical Association. “It’s had a very significant impact on our history.”
In 1961, Kennedy asked Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, a friend of his and Jackie Kennedy’s, to redesign and improve this part of the grounds. Mellon, an avid gardener and horticulture expert, took on the task with landscape architect Perry Wheeler and White House head gardener Irwin Williams. The Rose Garden was installed in 1962. Since then, it’s become known throughout the world as a place where presidents deliver important speeches to the American people.
Jackie Kennedy always appreciated Mellon’s special contribution to the White House. As a Christmas gift in 1966, she presented Mellon with a green and white striped handmade scrapbook she had personally created.
The inscription reads: “For Bunny — who made the Rose Garden — and who brought so much happiness to all our lives.”
Inside, it tells the story of the design of the White House garden project, with photos, blueprints, sketches, remembrances and Jackie Kennedy’s handwritten notes and doodles. Clippings from flowers and plants from the Rose Garden are dried and pressed into the scrapbook. There are many personal notes to Mellon from Jackie Kennedy, such as this one expressing how much her late husband had cherished this space: “All his happiest hours in the White House were spent in his garden.”
Mellon died last year at the age of 103.
Her beloved scrapbook is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Library in Upperville, Va., which Mellon built to house her collections of rare books and artifacts related to gardening and landscape design. The library is now used by garden scholars for research.
In the White House Historical Association exhibiton, images from Mellon’s private album of memories are being presented to the public for the first time. Because the scrapbook is too fragile to leave the Oak Spring Garden Library, visitors to the Washington exhibit, at White House Historical Association’s Decatur House, will see the more than 150 pages in a digital form, This also allows visitors to see all the pages. “It’s like flipping the pages of a book yourself,” Botello says. The exhibition also includes Rose Garden photographs and other related materials.
A scaled-down version of the steps that lead up to the Oval Office from the garden have been replicated in the exhibit, sort of as a selfie spot. There’s a silhouette of President Kennedy in the window. “Guests are welcome to snap themselves here and share on social media,” Botello says.
“The Kennedy Rose Garden, Traditionally American” Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Aug. 7 and 8 and Sept. 7. Through Sept. 12. On Sunday, Aug. 2, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., there will be a free garden-party open house with garden-related activities, floral demonstrations, tours and kids’ programs. White House Historical Association’s Decatur House, 748 Jackson Place NW, Washington. 202-737-8292. www.whitehousehistory.org. Free.