One summer afternoon in 1961, President John F. Kennedy, vacationing on Cape Cod, emerged from his sailboat for a picnic with friends.
He and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy had just returned from a European trip, where they noticed that heads of state seemed to have a symbolic but important diplomatic advantage over the United States: beautifully manicured gardens that gave official residences an air of refinement and prestige.
The picnic host was Rachel Lambert Mellon, a horticulturalist and heir to the Listerine fortune, known to her pals as Bunny. Kennedy pulled her aside. He had an idea.
“He wanted to start, in the greatest haste, to remake the area near his office at the west end of the White House, known as the Rose Garden, into an area both useful and attractive,” Mellon recalled years later in an essay for the White House Historical Association.
The White House Rose Garden dates back to the Wilson administration, when first lady Ellen Wilson planted roses in what had been a colonial garden. Other presidents tinkered with it over the years, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. for a redesign.
But it was Kennedy’s efforts in the early 1960s that transformed the space off the Oval Office into the American symbol it is today – a place for diplomacy, presidential news briefings and Cabinet appointment announcements. First lady Melania Trump, in announcing plans Monday to “restore and enhance” the garden, referenced Kennedy and Mellon’s efforts.
“Decades of use and necessary changes made to support the modern presidency have taken a toll on the garden and have made it more difficult to appreciate the elegant symmetry of the Mellon plan,” a White House statement said. “The refreshment of the Rose Garden will return it to its original ’62 footprint and help ensure it will thrive with improved infrastructure, better drainage, and a healthier environment for plantings that reduce the risk of leaf blight.”
Kennedy became nearly obsessed with the garden. Though the first lady was often credited with the high style that came to define the Kennedy White House, it was the president who drove the transformation of the Rose Garden.
“He bubbled with enthusiasm,” Mellon wrote, “with fascinating details of how he wanted a garden to appeal to the most discriminating taste, yet a garden that would hold a thousand people for a ceremony.”
It shouldn’t be just roses.
“The President loved flowers and asked if a variety of other types could be mixed with the roses,” Mellon wrote. “He had read the published garden notes of Thomas Jefferson and hoped for flowers used in Jefferson’s period.”
Work on the garden began in the spring of 1962 and finished a few months later.
“He loved the garden,” Irvin M. Williams, the chief White House gardener back then, remembered in an oral history. “. . . He loved the lawn especially when it was plush green.”
Of course, Kennedy didn’t get much time to enjoy it. He was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
The first lady made sure his connection with the garden he loved endured, even in death.
“She wanted a basket of flowers placed at the grave made up of flowers from the Rose Garden,” Williams said.
Mellon placed them at the head of the president’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.