The White House Rose Garden through the years

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August 29, 2020
Pete Souza // Obama White House Archives

The White House Rose Garden through the years

Long the purview of first ladies, the White House’s Rose Garden has seen changes both dramatic and modest since 1902, when the first true White House garden was overseen by first lady Edith Roosevelt. Several administrations and first ladies have since made their mark on the landscape, with Melania Trump’s recently revealed renovation the latest in a long tradition of overhauls, renovations, and updating flowers and other plants to reflect modern sensibilities and the preferences of White House inhabitants. 

Before it was the Rose Garden it was the White House stables, where horses and coaches were kept, according to the White House Museum. Nearby were extensive greenhouses that took up much of the space next to the White House until the late 1800s.

In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt remodeled the White House, updating the building into a more functional residence and moving the president’s office from the second floor to a new addition, what is now the West Wing. In addition to influencing the design and decor of the refurbished White House, Edith Roosevelt replaced the greenhouses torn down for the expansion with a “colonial” garden filled with old-fashioned flowers like pansies, daisies, and wildflowers.

Her garden saw a dramatic renovation in 1913 when first lady Ellen Wilson razed it to make way for a more modern garden designed by landscape architect George Burnap. The stylized walkways carved around numerous flower beds were replaced with a sharply rectangular garden framed with tailored hedges around a long lawn and rose beds—leading to the name Rose Garden, which would stick through more renovations.

The garden was majorly altered yet again, from 1961-1963, under the Kennedys. Designed by Rachel Lambert Mellon, the garden’s segments were removed in favor of a more open scheme. The tall clipped hedges were replaced with a wide lawn surrounded by symmetrical beds of colorful flowers. President Kennedy wanted the garden to serve as a stage, a function that has continued to this day. While other administrations have altered the plants and surface of the garden, its layout remains structurally unchanged since the Kennedys’ renovation nearly 60 years ago. Melania Trump’s renovation to the Rose Garden, revealed in August of 2020, presented a more muted and symmetrical iteration, with the crab apple trees removed and a new path laid to make traversing the garden accessible to visitors with disabilities. 

Stacker compiled 20 photos showing the Rose Garden’s evolution, from its Kennedy-era overhaul to its August 2020 update. Read on to learn more about the Rose Garden’s history through the years. 

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Robert Knudson // John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

1962: Rose Garden reconstruction

President Kennedy’s vision for a garden emerged after a state visit to France with the first lady in 1961. He met with Rachel Lambert Mellon in Cape Cod in August to discuss his ideas. Rachel, or “Bunny” as she is more commonly known, collaborated with Washington D.C. landscape architect Perry Hunt Wheeler, among others, in the garden design. The National Park Service began the renovation project in spring of 1962. In this photo, dated April 4, 1962, we see construction in progress with Bunny speaking to a man under the West Wing Colonnade.

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Bettman // Getty Images

1962: Jacqueline Kennedy with John Jr.

First lady Jackie Kennedy was involved in overseeing the renovations of the garden and documented the process in a scrapbook kept by the White House Historical Association. In this photo, dated April 12, 1962, we see Jackie Kennedy with her son, John, and Empress Farah, wife of the shah of Iran, along with the Kennedy pony, Marconi, on a tour of the White House grounds. In the background, the garden renovation is underway.

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Cecil Stoughton // John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

1963: JFK Jr. inspects the roses

Young John Kennedy stands in the newly created Rose Garden in April of 1963 with colorful tulips in full bloom. The lawn is roughly 50x100 feet, providing a space designed to be large enough for a gathering of up to a thousand people while maintaining a personal atmosphere. Each side of the garden is flanked by two 12-foot borders.

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Corbis via Getty Images

1963: A Rose Garden ceremony for Boys Nation

President Kennedy made frequent use of the new Rose Garden for a variety of functions. The president had specified there were to be functional steps that could also serve as a stage at the west end of the garden near the Oval Office. In this photo, Kennedy addresses Boys Nation, a young men’s civic group, at a Rose Garden ceremony on July 24, 1963. The meeting was of particular note as a young Bill Clinton was in attendance.

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Bettman // Getty Images

1964: Lyndon B. Johnson press conference in the Rose Garden

One of the most common uses of the Rose Garden is for press briefings. President Johnson is seen at the podium from above in this photo, speaking to reporters on April 23, 1964. The gardens are in full spring bloom, and five crab apple trees run along the garden's borders. The gardens are designed to change with the seasons, and be flexible to adapt to the tastes of the president, with a mix of annuals and perennials.

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Bettman // Getty Images

1971: Tricia Nixon is married in the Rose Garden

The Rose Garden could adapt to the needs of an administration. One of the more memorable transformations occurred when the simple gardens became an elegant wedding venue for President Richard Nixon’s daughter in the summer of 1971. In this photograph, newlyweds Tricia Nixon and Edward Finch Cox walk down the aisle on June 12.

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Bettman // Getty Images

1975: Ansel Adams visits the Rose Garden

Every administration has enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere of the Rose Garden. This photo, dated Jan. 27, 1975, shows President Gerald Ford and the first lady with famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams.

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Arnie Sachs/CNP // Getty Images

1980: Signing agreements in the Garden

The Rose Garden was intended to be a venue that could foster diplomacy and bring people together though the common ground of natural beauty. In this photo we see President Carter with Chinese Communist Party Vice Chairman Bo Yibo during signing of agreements to normalize relations between the U.S. and China on Sept. 17, 1980.

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David Hume Kennerly // Getty Images

1988: A Rose Garden welcoming ceremony

Every season brings change to the Rose Garden. In autumn, summer plants are removed to allow planting of chrysanthemums, anemone, Michaelmas daisies, and other fall blooms. November is also a time for elections and transitions. In this photo, taken on Nov. 9, 1988, we see first lady Nancy Reagan, President-elect George H.W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan, Mrs. Barbara Bush, Vice President-elect Dan Quayle, and Mrs. Marilyn Quayle on the garden steps. President-elect Bush had just won the presidential election the day before.

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John Shelley Collection/Avalon // Getty Images

1991: A royal visit

The Rose Garden provides an ideal venue for hosting heads of state. President George H.W. Bush welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to the White House on May 14, 1991.

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Ron Sachs/CNP // Getty Images

1993: Clinton appoints Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Garden

Executive announcements are another mainstay of the Rose Garden calendar. In this photo President Bill Clinton speaks before an audience as he names Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on June 14, 1993. She was confirmed on Aug. 3 to the position vacated by retiring Associate Justice Byron White. The row of crab apple trees along the colonnade form a verdant backdrop.

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Alex Wong // Getty Images

2005: Preserving America from the Rose Garden

A larger platform area for staging announcements is seen in this photograph bordered by flower boxes filled with geraniums. This adaptable addition offers a more breathing room for photo opportunities as well as hiding cording and offering greater accessibility. In this photo President George W. Bush speaks as first lady Laura Bush looks on during a Rose Garden event on May 2, 2005.

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Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

2008: The Garden in bloom

Picture perfect gardens require daily maintenance year round. The Rose Garden is maintained by the National Park Service.

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TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images

2009: Maintainence matters

In this Aug. 11, 2009 photo we see National Park Service Gardener Kevin Tennyson at work on the border garden with President Barack Obama in the background. The long borders that flank the Rose Garden are 12 feet wide each with five Katherine crab apple trees that mark a center point for each section. The crab apples were chosen for their compatibility with roses as well as other perennials, annuals, and plantings that grow at their base. In Bunny Mellon’s original plans, Santolina (a form of chamomile) is planted into a diamond shape surrounding each tree surrounded by a clipped boxwood hedge. As mentioned, plants are changed seasonally, and in summer, these sectioned border gardens include dark lavender heliotrope, geraniums, lilies, white dianthus, blue salvia, lady’s mantle, cosmos, and lemon verbena (among others).

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Pete Souza // Obama White House Archives

2011: A state dinner in the Rose Garden

The Rose Garden makes a striking venue for a summer dinner. This photograph was taken from the roof above the Oval Office looking down at the Rose Garden during a state dinner in honor of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and her husband, Dr. Joachim Sauer, on June 7, 2011. First lady Michelle Obama is seen at the head table thanking the chefs. Behind her is a set up for a select group of the National Symphony Orchestra to perform.

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PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

2014: Through the blooms of a magnolia tree

Saucer magnolia trees make the anchors for the four corners of the garden.

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The White House // Wikimedia Commons

2019: The Rose Garden covered in snow

When Bunny Mellon was envisioning the Rose Garden, she took all four seasons into consideration. Faced with the challenge of softening the grounds during the winter months, she found inspiration in magnolia trees she saw in front of the Frick art museum in New York. These trees would act as anchors for the four corners of the garden. Their lines add a physical buffer and visual interest year-round. In this photo from Jan. 14, 2019, fresh snowfall blankets the Rose Garden and collects in the magnolia branches and on the hawthorn and holly below.

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The White House // Wikimedia Commons

2019: Red roses bloom in the Garden

Administrations and tastes change, but the rose remains constant.

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Chip Somodevilla // Getty Images

2019: The Trumps visit the garden

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk out of the Oval Office during a National Day of Prayer service in the Rose Garden at the White House. In July of 2020 Melania Trump announced her plans to update the Rose Garden.

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Drew Angerer // Getty Images

2020: Rose Garden revamped

Renovations complete on Aug. 22, 2020.

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