This week, First Lady Melania Trump unveiled her latest contribution to the White House grounds and to American architecture: A classically-inspired tennis pavilion on the South Grounds.
“I am pleased to announce the completion of the Tennis Pavilion on the White House grounds,” she announced December 7 in a statement issued by the White House. “Thank you to all of the talented craftsmen who made this project possible and to the generous supporters of the White House. It is my hope that this private space will function as both a place of leisure and gathering for future First Families.”
The tennis pavilion is the third major change to the White House grounds this year after the redesign of the Rose Garden and the erection of “temporary” security fencing around the perimeter. It was finished weeks before the Trump family is scheduled to turn the White House over to President-elect Joe Biden.
The tennis pavilion project included the refurbishment of the White House tennis court, which former President Barack Obama had used as a basketball court, and the Grandchildren’s Garden, also known as the Children’s Garden.
The 1,200-square-foot pavilion replaced a smaller structure that contained a restroom and storage space. Stylistically the design trends historic, including a colonnade, parapet wall, floor-to-ceiling colonial-style windows broken up with heavy mullions, and symmetrical fanlight windows in the facade.
Work began at a time when the Trump administration was considering issuing an executive order mandating neoclassical architecture be the “preferred and default style” for new federal buildings. That order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” still hasn’t formerly been issued yet, but the tennis pavilion would meet the proposed guidelines if it did.
In its statement about the project’s completion, the White House noted that the pavilion and landscape were designed to “blend” with existing structures on the White House grounds
“Design of the structure was inspired by the existing architecture of the White House, in particular the East and West Wings,” said the White House. “Elements such as the colonnade, parapet wall and fanlight windows tie the new building to the existing look and feel of the White House.”
Planning began in early 2018 and a final design was approved in the spring of 2019 by the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. Although construction began in October of 2019, many people did not become aware that the project was underway until the First Lady posted photos on social media in March showing work at the site, which is just southwest of the Executive Residence. Because of its location, the pavilion isn’t visible outside of the fenced White House grounds.
According to plans approved by the two design review commissions, the pavilion is approximately 49 feet long, 24 feet wide and just under 18 feet high, with a pitched, lead-lined copper roof and stucco walls with limestone trim.
A project summary prepared for the planning commission said the pavilion was designed to serve as a “unifying element” for the tennis court, the Children’s Garden, introduced on the White House grounds by former First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson in 1968, and the Kitchen Garden, started by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009.
The Tennis Pavilion “will be a quiet respite in the middle of these three uses and will provide locker rooms and a sitting area, unifying this part of the White House grounds,” the overview said.
The National Park Service took the lead on the project, working with the White House and the Trust for the National Mall, among others. In minutes of a May 16, 2019 presentation to the fine arts commission, the lead architect was identified as Steven Spandle.
According to minutes from the May 16 meeting, Spandle told panel members that the White House was the primary precedent he studied in designing the pavilion and its classical detailing – especially the East and West wings.
His design called for the pavilion’s smaller windows to be made of mahogany and for the larger windows behind the columns to be made of steel. The cornice height is about 12 feet, and the roof rises to a ridgeline nearly six feet above that. Spandle “presented a comparison of the proposed classical detailing in the Ionic order with the existing colonnades of the White House and West Wing,” according to the meeting log.
The tennis pavilion is part of a two-phase plan for the South Grounds that calls for a second structure, a maintenance facility, to be built nearby in place of an existing maintenance building called the Pony Shed.
Spandle showed the fine arts commission a schematic design for that phase, indicating that it would also be clad in stucco with limestone trim, and “designed to recede into the landscape,” according to minutes from the meeting. The building would be about 87 feet long and 39 feet wide, with concrete roof tiles intended to give “the appearance of a wood shingle roof,” the minutes say.
There is no specific time frame for work to begin on the second building. Both commissions were told that it could be several years off.
The cost of the tennis pavilion has not been disclosed, but White House officials say all work was funded by private donations.
When the First Lady tweeted photos of herself in a hard hat at the construction site in March, she drew criticism from people who said it was insensitive to call attention to a tennis pavilion when the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold and Americans were losing their jobs. Detractors said she was tone deaf and compared her to Marie Antoinette.
“Let them lob serves,” one critic jested.
“Millions of Americans seek assurance that this administration is doing all that it can to stem spread of the coronavirus, but the First Lady wants us to know she’s ‘excited’ about her new tennis court,” tweeted Connie Schultz, the wife of U. S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a Democrat.
The First Lady responded with a message on her @FLOTUS Twitter account.
“I encourage everyone who chooses to be negative & question my work at the @WhiteHouse to take time and contribute something good & productive in their own communities. #BeBest,” she said.
However, that didn’t stop critics from raising the same concerns. As The Guardian noted, critics on Twitter were quick to call out the First Lady for moving ahead with the project during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic… but it seems actual design criticism has so far been few and far between.