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Covering Old Grounds

Terp Author Documents History of White House Property

By Lauren Brown

White House

Courtesy of Bruce White, The White House Historical Association

Courtesy of Bruce White, The White House Historical Association

The White House Grounds aren’t just the lawns around the nation’s most famous home. They’re a historic treasure in their own right, shaped by U.S. presidents and their families over the past two centuries to suit their tastes and the times—from John Quincy Adams digging in the dirt to conduct horticulture experiments, to Richard Nixon hosting daughter Tricia’s wedding in the Rose Garden, to Michelle Obama creating a kitchen garden.Pliska

Jonathan Pliska M.H.P. ’07 (right) has documented it all in “A Garden for the President: A History of the White House Grounds,” a new book published by the White House Historical Association to mark the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which maintains the 18.7-acre property.

Pliska cultivated his specialty as a landscape historian at the University of Maryland, building on undergraduate majors in history, zoology and conservation with internships at the U.S. Treasury and the NPS to conduct research on the Treasury grounds next to the White House and on historic “witness” trees present at important American events, respectively.

He worked on-and-off on the book for eight years, perusing archival documents and gaining rare access to the Grounds. It traces the site from its birth as a mess of construction rubble that Thomas Jefferson first envisioned as a tapis vert and “pleasure ground” to what we see today, based on famed landscape architect Frederick Olmstead Jr.’s thoughtful and judicious guidelines.

Pliska was surprised to discover such a strong social component woven through the narrative.

“It’s not just a gardener’s guide to plants and flowers, although the botanicals are discussed at length. There’s also something for other people who might be interested in what happened during wartimes, for example,” he says. “The house is so iconic. But I can’t even imagine the house without the landscape it stands on.”

With President Donald J. Trump having just moved into the White House, Pliska notes that it would be unusual if he—or any president—didn’t put his stamp on the grounds.

“It’s a very important space that deserves to be maintained and preserved, but it’s also not static. It’s going to continue to evolve in order to meet the needs of the occupants of the White House, the modern presidency and future security concerns,” he says. “You can take a historic building and just preserve it, if you have an infinite amount of money. But you can’t do that with a landscape. Plants are going to die. You have to have a plan for when that happens. The landscape poses unique challenges, but also unique rewards.”

See the photos for 10 entertaining anecdotes from the book.

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WH 1 Thomas Jefferson Landscape Plan edited
1. When Thomas Jefferson moved into the White House in 1801, the grounds were little more than a dump site, littered with construction debris, piles of leftover clay and tree stumps. An outhouse graced the premises for at least another two years. This image, believed to be at least partially in Jefferson's own hand, showcases his ambitious plans for improving the presidential landscape. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

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