This article is an adaption of a detailed response to a recent media about First Lady Michelle Obama’s unique and consistent use of the White House South Lawn as a venue for promotion of her “Let’s Move!” program.
For more than two centuries, the White House has consistently served as a powerful symbol of the United States, generally, and the American Presidency, specifically.
Despite all of the interior and exterior architectural changes that have shaped its evolution as a visual center of attention, one element most easily overlooked is the very foreground which has always served to provide a frame, so to speak, for the white sandstone and marble building has been the broad greensward of the South Lawn.
Like the mansion’s interiors and exteriors, the South Lawn has changed over the decades, put to use for various purposes at the direction of not just the Presidents but the First Ladies.
Certainly, one of the earliest accounts placing a First Lady on the South Lawn is of Dolley Madison.
Although she was not yet the wife of the president but rather the secretary of state at the time, she appeared at President Thomas Jefferson’s Independence Day 1801 reception, held on the South Lawn.
With his announcement on July 4th two years later of the Louisiana Purchase, Mrs. Madison used the annual lawn event to help supplement government support for necessary goods for the famous Lewis and Clark expedition that would explore the far reaches of the western portion of what would become the entire United States. Wax, silver cooking utensils, oil lamps were among the practical supplies that she, according to legend, gathered that day on the lawn both through donated items and funds to purchase them
Although there would be intermittent efforts to formally landscape the White House South Lawn, Angelica Van Buren was unfairly singled out in an exaggerated claim by a political opponent of her father-in-law, President Martin Van Buren.
Among the charges of royal living made by a Whig Congressman against Van Buren, he suggested that the presidential hostess, having taken a honeymoon tour that included visits to the British and French royal households and gardens, convinced Van Buren to similarly re-landscape the South Lawn with a regal touch.
Letitia Tyler was rarely seen by the public, having suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed but she still directed the social events from her second floor suite.
While specific documentation crediting her for the innovation of hosting Marine Band concerts open for the public to enjoy in the summer of 1841 is unknown, these did first take place at that time and her daughter-in-law Priscilla Tyler, who served as the President’s hostess in her stead, appeared at these with the public.
Another invalid First Lady, Eliza Johnson, enjoyed from afar the unique use of the South Lawn by her grandchildren.
Among the earliest definitive accounts of the now annual White House Easter Egg Roll dates to the Andrew Johnson Administration, although it appears to have been more of a private event for the presidential grandchildren and their friends, while the First Lady watched from the South Portico.
By the time Lucy Hayes was First Lady, the large children’s garden party was established and would continue to this day, except in times of war and presidential illness.
The South Lawn became something of a public park by the end of the 19th century, so much so that First Lady Frances Cleveland felt rather besieged about having strangers wander across what is technically the back lawn of the presidential home.
When, from an upstairs window, she saw that tourists on the South Lawn had stopped her children’s nursemaid and were picking up and passing around her daughters, she decided that the family must relocate to a private home and use the mansion for only social events she and the President would have to host.
The South Lawn was closed to all during World War I, but it was still put to use under the era of Edith Wilson. It was there that she and the President came to watch a demonstration of one of the first federal airmail planes. Capturing the public imagination at the time was the sight of sheep grazing the South Lawn.
The unusual vision of sheep on the first house of the lawn was intended to serve as an example of how the presidential household was doing its part to reduce a reliance on manual laborers like groundskeepers at a time when all effort had to be directed towards the war effort.
Florence Harding gave greater focus to the South Lawn than perhaps any of her predecessors.
With the advent of the decade dubbed 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 a tradition of hosting an annual garden party for the disabled and wounded veterans in the wards of nearby Walter Reed Hospital.
She had tulip bulbs planted to give color to the greensward, and also had the trees filled with newly-crafted birdhouses.
In another time of war, Eleanor Roosevelt directed the planting of a victory garden on the South Lawn, as all American households were being encouraged to do in order to economize on food.
She was not known, however, for taking any direct role in the cultivation or harvesting of its bounty.
Jacqueline Kennedy also took an especial interest in the South Lawn, particularly after learning that it was suffering from the bane of millions of suburban families at the time – crabgrass.
At her direction, a plant to remove and then replant the entire green grass yardage of the South Lawn was undertaken.
Once completed, the South Lawn was put to use for a wide variety of performing arts shows, including a Student-to-Student series of concerts and a ballet performance.
A staging platform was used, created for the unique dimension of the South Lawn, with a clamshell-shaped back wall.
It was not, however, the first time the lawn was used for a cultural performance beyond the Marine Band concerts.
In 1910, Helen Taft hosted the only known performance of Shakespeare on the South Lawn, an event used to raise funds for the establishment of local playgrounds for children.
Two other unprecedented uses of the South Lawn were initiated by Lady Bird Johnson in the 1960s.
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; there, a contemporary American art exhibition was created.
In the final days of the summer of 1968, a time of turmoil and national conflict as well as that of a presidential election, Mrs. Johnson hosted what was characterized as an old-fashioned country fair, with game booths, cotton candy and popcorn carts, a Ferris wheel and antique car parade.
The guests were all of the White House staff workers and their spouses.
Pat Nixon also made unique use of the South Lawn.
She and the President hosted a special state dinner to honor returned American prisoners held captive by the North Vietnamese and released upon the end of the Vietnam War in 1973.
For the first time, a special temporary structure was built to house the formal dining tables and chairs usually used inside the White House to permit a larger number of guests to attend.
She also joined area children there for the inaugural event of a “Summers in the Park” program that hosted activities during the summer school break on National Park Service properties in the capital city region.
Among Mrs. Nixon’s most democratic legacies also involved the South Lawn. At her direction, she opened the grounds for the first public tours, held annually in the spring and fall.
The tradition has largely continued. Feeling that so many come to the capital city 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 night.
More recent First Ladies each made unique use of the South Lawn. Betty Ford hosted the first children’s Halloween Party there.
Rosalynn Carter established the regular use of the South Lawn for a summer Congressional picnic, and one year hosted the first White House Jazz Festival there.
One winter, Mrs. Carter also created a winter wonderland holiday party for congressional families, with an ice ring where Olympic skater Peggy Fleming performed, a snowmaking machine with snowmen, and mugs of hot cider and chocolate made available.
Always celebrating her July 5th birthday on Independence Day, Nancy Reagan extended the personal festivities by reviving the White House July 4th Picnic, held for White House staff.
After enjoying a birthday party with the President and their friends earlier in the day, she joined in with the staff South Lawn picnic, sitting on a blanket and listening to a concert of patriotic music.
The Rose Garden, just outside the West Wing, and what is now called the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, its counterpart on the east end, are technically part of the South Lawn.
Both areas were the point of special focus by previous First Ladies.
Ellen Wilson undertook the landscaping of the first Rose Garden, which included statuary and a fountain. The modern Rose Garden, however, was created at Mrs. Kennedy’s direction by her friend, horticulturalist Rachel Mellon.
Theodore Roosevelt’s wife created what was called a “colonial garden” on the east side.
Later, it was formally landscaped during Lady Bird Johnson’s tenure, completing the vision begun by her predecessor and named for her officially as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
Hillary Clinton particularly enjoyed this part of the lawn and there created The Sculpture Garden, with a rotating exhibition of large, outdoor contemporary American sculptures.
Hillary Clinton expanded upon Pat Nixon’s use of the South Lawn as a staging area for large state dinners. She also hosted a unique musical concert by leading American performers there, with the station VH1, as part of its “Save the Music” initiative to retain musical education in public schools.
Certainly, however, no First Lady more consistently put to unique use the South Lawn than has Michelle Obama.
It was at the beginning of her “Let’s Move!” program, intended to improve the diet and awareness of food consumed by children that she began it by creating a White House vegetable garden there.
Throughout the course of each year, she has not merely sponsored but herself participated in the soil preparation, seed planting, cultivation and harvesting of a surprising large yield of freshly-grown vegetables, alongside groups of schoolchildren.
In many respects, the White House South Lawn has served as a familiar venue for the current First Lady.
The greensward provides her with a chance to not only address issues of importance to her involving nutrition and health, initiated by concern for the alarming rate of obesity among the nation’s youth, but also a platform for her to demonstrate what she encourages others to do.
As part of the exercise component of “Let’s Move!” the First Lady has also used the vast greensward as a staging area for physical movements with children, from jumping rope, to running, to even hosting the largest hula-hoop demonstration on record.
Here are some more views of the White House South Lawn over the course of the American Presidency’s history: