In the patriarchal establishment that is the White House, care of the Rose Garden has long been entrusted to the lady of the house. Originally installed by Edith Roosevelt (wife of Theodore), the garden was redesigned by Ellen Axson Wilson and given its modern look by Jacqueline Kennedy. So it should not have come as a surprise when earlier this summer the White House announced that our current first lady, Melania Trump, would put her own personal stamp on the garden.
But when the revamped Rose Garden was opened to news media on Saturday, there was little in the new design to suggest a feminine touch. The exuberant flower beds, bursting with colors, were replaced by disciplined rows of green bushes interspersed with roses in muted pastels; the crab apple trees that had given both color and shade had been uprooted and removed, the central lawn now framed on three sides by a rigid rectangular limestone path. One of the White House’s most human enclosures had been replaced by a severe geometrical space of right angles and straight lines, all converging on the Oval Office—the seat of national power.
It’s hard to say how much Melania actually had to do with turning the Rose Garden into an advertisement for her husband’s vision of an imperial presidency. She may have been the driving force, even if the symbolism of the changes is so on-the-nose it could’ve been concocted by Republican strategists preparing for their national convention. What is clear is that the garden’s true designers were neither Melania nor anyone else working in the White House, but two men, both of them long dead: the master gardener André Le Nôtre and his patron, King Louis XIV.
For more than 40 years, beginning in 1661, Le Nôtre labored to create at Versailles the grandest and most imposing royal garden the world had ever seen. By the time of his death the grounds had become a geometrical world of precise angles, symmetry, and straight open avenues, all converging on the royal palace on the hill, and the king’s bedchamber at its heart. At Versailles, nothing was hidden from the king’s gaze, and his power reached instantly and unopposed to every corner of the land. It was an emblem of Louis’ ideal of royal absolutism, impressing both his subjects and foreign visitors with the Sun King’s unlimited power.
Despite its royal roots, a formal geometrical garden is hardly out of place in D.C. The city’s designer, after all, was a Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant, who had learned his craft in the gardens of Louis XIV’s successors and imprinted the American capital with their feel and power. The National Mall, for example, with its broad straight avenues converging symmetrically on Capitol Hill, is resonant with echoes of Versailles. It is therefore no surprise that the Rose Garden, too, spreading out in front of the West Wing, has from the beginning incorporated formal elements in the French style.