The South Lawn's Unique Encounters With First Ladies

Written by TaskEasy
on October 05, 2016

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in the race of a lifetime as the go toe to toe in who take up residency in the White House. Although there’s no way to know who will become the next President of the United States, we do know that the House they’re about to live in is one of the most powerful homes in the world.

Despite all the makeovers the White House has endured and has yet to endure, one element of the property has provided us a frame that is unmatched - the beautiful South Lawn. Like the mansion’s interiors and exteriors, the South Lawn has changed over the decades, and has been put to use for various purposes at the direction of not just the Presidents, but also the First Ladies.

First Lady Dolley MadisonOne of the earliest accounts placing a First Lady on the South Lawn is Dolley Madison. Admittedly, she was not a wife of the president yet, but rather the secretary of state, she appeared at President Thomas Jefferson’s Independence Day reception in 1801. Mrs. Madison used the annual lawn event to help supplement government support for necessary goods for the famous Lewis and Clark expedition where they would explore the far western portion of what would become the entire United States.

Although she was the daughter-in-law of the eighth president, Martin Van Buren, she held the role of the First Lady in the White House. She drew much criticism from Whig Congressman suggesting that after her honeymoon to the British and French royal households and garden, she convinced the president to re-landscape the South Lawn with a regal touch. While it may be true, the South Lawn looked remarkable.

First Lady Eliza Johnson suffered from tuberculosis, which unfortunately made it difficult to walk around the South Lawn. However, she did enjoy the South Lawn from afar by watching her grandchildren. The earliest definitive accounts of the now annual White House Easter Egg Roll dates to the Andrew Johnson Administration. While it appears to have been more of a private event for the presidential grandchildren and their friends until Lucy Hayes was First Lady, Eliza Johnson was key in starting the garden party.

By the end of the 19th century, the South Lawn was something of a public park. First Lady Frances Cleveland wasn’t all too pleased with this, mostly because strangers wander across what is technically the back lawn of the presidential home. From her upstairs window she saw tourists on the South Lawn that had stopped her children’s nursemaid and picked up and passed around her daughters. Like any mother in that situation, she relocated the family to a private home and used the mansion for only social events she and the president would host.

Once Florence Harding became First Lady in the “Roaring Twenties”, she began using the lawn as an extension of the White House state rooms, and used them frequently for entertaining in her favorite format, the garden party. She began the tradition of hosting an annual garden party for the disabled and wounded veterans in the wards of nearby Walter Reed Hospital. She treated the garden with love by adding tulip bulbs to give it color and also had the trees filled with newly-crafted birdhouses.

Let’s move forward to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She took a very special interest in the South Lawn, particularly after learning that it was suffering from the bane of suburban families all over - crabgrass. At her direction, a plant to remove and then replant the entire green grass yardage of the South Lawn was undertaken. The First Lady made the South Lawn useable for a wide variety of performing art shows, including a student-to-student series of concerts and a ballet performance.

The South Lawn would continue to have new uses once Lady Bird Johnson became the First Lady. As part of her 1965 Festival of the Arts, Mrs. Johnson had guests enjoy an afternoon break from readings inside the mansion outside on the South Lawn where a contemporary American art exhibition was created.

It didn’t stop there for Lady Bird. In the final days of summer of 1968, a time of turmoil and national conflict as well as that of a presidential election, Mrs. Johnson hosted an old-fashioned country fair, with game booths, cotton candy, popcorn carts, a Ferris wheel, and an antique car parade. The guests were all of the White House staff workers and their spouses who enjoyed the fair.

First Lady, Pat Nixon, also made unique use of the South Lawn. She and the President hosted a special state dinner to honor returned American prisoners that were held captive by the North Vietnamese and released at the end of the Vietnam War in 1973.

One of Mrs. Nixon’s most popular legacies that involved the South Lawn is opening the grounds for the first public tours. These tours were held annually in the spring and fall. The tradition has largely continued. Feeling that so many come to Washington DC, but due to timing were unable to see the White House, she initiated a new lighting system that kept the mansion and the South Lawn fountain illuminated so that they could be enjoyed in the dark of the night.

More recent First Ladies have broadened the use of the South Lawn. Rosalynn Carter regularly used the South Lawn for a summer Congressional picnic. She also created a winter wonderland holiday party for congressional families, with an ice ring, a snowmaking machine with snowmen, and mugs of hot cider and chocolate.

Now running to be President of the United States, First Lady Hillary Clinton particularly enjoyed this part of the lawn, leading her to create The Sculpture Garden, with a rotating exhibition of large, outdoor contemporary American sculptures. Hillary also did her part in expanding the use of the South Lawn by hosting a unique musical concert by leading American performers there with VH1 as part of its “Save the Music” initiative to retain musical education in public schools.

No First Lady has been more involved in the use of the South Lawn than Michelle Obama. In her “Let’s Move” program, she began to create a White House vegetable garden there. Throughout the course of each year, she has not only sponsored, but also participated with schoolchildren in the soil preparation, seed planting, cultivation and harvesting these freshly-grown vegetables.

Every First Lady has had a unique impression on the South Lawn. With the Presidential Elections going on right now, it’s exciting to think of what will become of it with the next family. Whether it’ll be First Lady Melania Trump or First Man, who will be the first of his kind, Bill Clinton, we hope they continue to make new traditions for the upcoming years.

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