Just ahead of the Republic National Convention, Melania Trump this past weekend revealed a refreshed and redesigned White House Rose Garden. And despite some elements of the horticultural overhaul being beneficial or needing time to grow in, reactions from the architecture and landscape architecture community as well as armchair critics on social media has been decidedly not great.
“The (redesigned) Rose Garden appears “flat and dull, characterless,” wrote Paul Goldberger on Twitter. “The vulgarity that was feared isn’t there—but neither is there any quality other than a stunning blandness. The subtlety of the old design, as well as its energy, are gone.”
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) August 22, 2020
Some even called for the landscape architecture firms involved with the redesign to be boycotted.
Others in the field have offered more complimentary assessments although, like everything in this moment, reactions on social media have been largely, but not exclusively, divided down the partisan line.
Melania Trump is scheduled to deliver her RNC speech from the Oval Office-adjacent green space, a storied backdrop that, while certainly more telegenic than the standard cavernous convention hall, runs afoul of ethical protocol that stipulates that certain events—i.e. reelection campaign activities—can not be held on the White House grounds.
While this particular use of the Rose Garden is unprecedented, Melania Trump’s spearheading of a garden makeover—Long Island, New York-based Perry Guillot, Inc. and Washington, D.C.-based Oehme, van Sweden & Associates | OvS served as designers on the project—is not. Critics, however, have questioned the timing of a major (and long-overdue, in some regards) landscaping switch-up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that, among other things, largely does away with the large trees and colorful flowers that defined it during the Obama administration in favor of a more muted and orderly design that, as historian Amir Alexander detailed for Slate, echoes the imperial palace at Versailles.
Many, if not most, modern first ladies have overseen tweaks to the Rose Garden to some extent. (Hillary Clinton, for example, added a slew of sculptures by well-known artists to the garden during her husband’s two-term presidency). However, it was the extensive 1962 redesign overseen by Jacqueline Kennedy and executed by Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon and Perry Wheeler that helped lift the oft-overlooked garden, first formally established by Ellen Louise Axson Wilson in 1913, into national prominence. The Trump redesign, per the White House, aimed to reshape the garden into something more closely resembling its state during the Kennedy administration while enhancing and modernizing it with improved accessibility and drainage as well as technical upgrades. Yet one of the defining features of the Kennedy-era Rose Garden, a dozen crab apple trees planted around the garden’s perimeter, have been removed. (They’ll reportedly be replanted elsewhere.)
“The changes you see tonight are the result of a thoughtful and collaborative process carefully crafted with the help of scholars and experts in architecture, horticulture, design, and historic preservation,” said Melania Trump at this weekend’s unveiling ceremony. “This renewal included improvements to the infrastructure and utilities, allowing this beautiful garden to more readily meet the needs of a busy White House. These improvements also make the garden fully accessible to all Americans, including those with disabilities.”
The renovation was informed by an over 240-page report issued by the bipartisan Committee For The Preservation of the White House and the Subcommittee For Garden and Grounds. Melania Trump serves as honorary chair of the larger committee. Completed within just three weeks following months of planning, the overhaul was not, according to the White House, paid for using taxpayer funds but with private donations.