Vintage landscape: tree delivery

White House tree delivered, Mar. 1922, via Library of Congress. . . to the White House, Washington, D.C., March 1922, by Harris & Ewing, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Thomas Jefferson, the second President to occupy the White House, directed that hundreds of small trees be planted in groves around the grounds (none of them exist today).

John Quincy Adams was the first to add ornamental trees. Andrew Jackson brought in the first sycamores, elms, and maples.

There’s more about the history of the White House gardens and grounds here.

What kind of small tree/large shrub do you think this was?

I never before knew the full value of trees. My house is entirely embossomed in high plane-trees, with good grass below; and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company. What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown.

Thomas Jefferson to his daughter, Martha, (from Philadelphia), 1793

The Sunday porch: view finder

094498pvAbove: View from the porch of the Flanders Callaway House, Warren County, Missouri, 1938, by Charles or Alexander Piaget, working with Charles van Ravenswaay (later incorporated into a 1985 HABS).*

All photos here via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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Above: “View from White House porch [looking north to Lafayette Park],” Washington, D.C., 1920, from National Photo Company Collection. President and Mrs. Wilson introduced sheep to the White House lawn. The wool went to the Red Cross.

The Sunday porch: views, via Library of CongressAbove: View from porch at Shady Rest Sanatorium, White Heath, Illinois, ca. 1920 – 1950, by Theodor Horydczak.

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Above: Looking north from the porch of the Kolb-Pou-Newton House [or Boxwood], Madison, Georgia, June 1936, by L. D. Andrew for HABS.

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Above: View of garden from the porch – Oakland Plantation, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, ca. 1988, by HABS.

095350pvAbove: Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Dickbrader and Mr. Arcularius on the porch of the Dickbrader House, Franklin County, Missouri, by  HABS.

150293pvAbove: John Calvin Owings House, Laurens, South Carolina, by HABS.

The Sunday porch: views, via Library of CongressAbove: View from the veranda of the Billings Farm and Museum to Blake Hill, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Woodstock, Vermont, 2001, by David W. Haas for HABS.

014310pvAbove: Porch of Smithcliffs House, North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, California, by HABS.

207863pvAbove: “View from north porch, looking northeast toward Fort George River – Kingsley Plantation House,” Jacksonville, Florida, 1005, by Jack Boucher for HABS.

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Above: “View from north porch looking south into Back Hall, with Reception Hall south door open [and closed] – Homewood (cropped slightly by me),” Baltimore, Maryland, 2005, by James W. Rosenthal for HABS.

*Historic American Building Survey


The winter garden: the White House

Violet house section of the White House conservatory, early 1900s, by Barnett McFee Clinedinst
The violet house section of the White House conservatory, early 1900s, by Barnett McFee Clinedinst

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a whole greenhouse devoted to growing violets for the house during the cold weather months?

Or orchids and palms?

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Frances Benjamin Johnston took the above photographs (except one) in 1889 and 1890.

Or azaleas?

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A large conservatory complex occupied the west side of the White House from 1857. . .

The White House and conservatory in 1857 by Lewis Emory Walker.
The White House and conservatory in 1857 by Lewis Emory Walker.

until 1902, when the West Wing was built.

The greenhouses in 1889 by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
The greenhouses in 1889 by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

All photos above via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Four more winter gardens are here.

The perfect loveliness that God has made,—
Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams.

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, from “Sonnet

Vintage landscape: the national tree

White House, 19 December 1939, via LoC

On December 19, 1939 — in the photo above — the White House was being decorated for Christmas.  But the “gayly colored” lights on the wreath and trees would not be lit until Christmas Eve when President Roosevelt would also light the “community Xmas tree.”

At that time, what is now known as the National Christmas Tree was called the National Community Christmas Tree (I like that).

For most of the 1930s, the tree was installed in Lafayette Park, on the north side of the White House.  In the photo below, workers (in suits) decorate the 1937 tree on December 23.

1930's tree, L0C

However, the first national tree had been placed on The Ellipse (also its current location), on the south side of the White House, in 1923 (below).

1923 tree setup, L0C

In the early 1920s, according to Wikipedia, “The Society for Electrical Development (an electrical industry trade group) was looking for a way to encourage people to purchase more electric Christmas lights and use electricity, and [Frederick Morris] Feiker [past editor of Electrical World] suggested that President Calvin Coolidge personally light the tree as a way of giving Christmas lights prominence and social cachet.”

The 48′ tall balsam fir was cut and donated by Middlebury College in the President’s home state of Vermont. The Electric League of Washington donated the 2,500 red, green, and white lights.

1923 tree, LoC

President Coolidge lit the tree on Christmas Eve without making any remarks (below).  A two-hour music concert was then held. Wikipedia notes that “after the white residents of the city had dispersed, African American residents of the city were permitted on the park grounds to see the National Christmas Tree.”

1923 tree lighting, LoC

On December 17, 1924 (below), a live “community” tree was planted in Sherman Park (just southeast of the White House).  This had become necessary after Coolidge, speaking before the American Forestry Association that April, had criticized cutting trees for Christmas decorations. (The national tree had to be replaced in 1929 and has been replaced many times since. From the early 50s to the early 70s, cut trees were used.)

1924 tree planted, LoC

Below is a rather solemn moment from the lighting. The Coolidges’ son had died of blood poisoning earlier in the year, and a new Christmas carol, “Christmas Bells” — dedicated to Mrs. Coolidge — was performed at the ceremony.

1924 tree lit, L0C

Wikipedia has an interesting complete history of the National Christmas Tree here. Two more facts from the article:

“During the 1931 ceremony, a buzzer went off when Hoover lit the tree at 5:00 p.m. Because the button he pressed was not actually connected to the electricity, the buzzer alerted another official to actually light the tree.  The button the president pushed would not be reconnected to actual electricity again until 1980.”

In 1932, “loudspeakers connected to a phonograph were concealed in the branches of the tree, and Christmas carols were played every night from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until New Year’s Day.  The Singing Tree was a hit with the public, and although music and choirs continued to perform each year, the tradition of the Singing Tree lasted for several more decades.”

Facts about this year’s tree are here.

Photo Sources:

1. and 2. Photos by Harris & Ewing via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

3. to 8.  National Photo Company collection via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


I walked by the White House a few weeks ago to look through the fence at the famous vegetable garden. Then I took a further look around and realized that all of the ornamental beds and pots on public view, on all sides of the house, were planted out in red wax begonias.

Just wax begonias combined with dusty miller.

And I thought, “seriously?”

Yes, this — just this, all around.

I know they’re tough and look neat and give reliable color and my feet were hurting from too much walking, but how dull.

The kitchen garden looked fine and huge kudos, but next year, would it not also be educational for D.C. schoolchildren to learn to spell ‘Asclepias tuberosa‘ — as they tuck them in around the fountains with maybe some native switchgrass and goldenrod* — or even the family to which it belongs, ‘Apocynaceae‘ (formerly thought to be ‘Asclepiadaceae‘), and its subfamily, ‘Asclepiadoideae.’

Or maybe just the word ‘perennial,’ which I have to let spellcheck fix every time I write it.

Why do we have wax begonias at the White House, while the British Museum currently has this?  (“North American Landscape:  Kew at the British Museum”)

* and even some scarlet rose mallow (Hibiscus c-o-c-c-i-n-e-u-s), which was planted at the Old Executive Office Building and looked great. (Addendum:  I’m now thinking it could have been this.)