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A "perfect bower of beauty": The White House Conservatory


The first Conservatory at the White House by Harriet Lane, built in 1857. From 'Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper', tinted by Hall Baglie, 1858


Introduction


This month, I'm making one of my occasional forays across 'the pond' to write about the Conservatory and greenhouses at the White House in Washington D.C., the official residence and work-place of Presidents of the United States of America. I came across images of these glasshouses only recently while researching something else – many wonderful photographs of them freely available on-line.


Glasshouses had been around in Europe for several hundred years, but it wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that the technology arrived in America. It's said that the first one was built for a wealthy Boston merchant in 1737, while George Washington famously had one built at his Mount Vernon home to grow pineapples.


Illustration of the south face of The White House showing the first Conservatory (on the left) c.1860. Courtesy White House Museum


And here just a word about terminology; most of the information I've looked at on this subject refers to "the conservatory and greenhouses" at the White House – as there was one main glasshouse, the Conservatory, which was used by incumbent 'first families' as a place for relaxation, enjoying the plants, and for entertaining guests. The various greenhouses housed collections of plants, flowers, and fruit. Unless mentioning either specifically, I'll refer to them collectively as glasshouses. And for ease of [my] reference, I'll refer to this period as 'Victorian' although it also strays into the early 20th century.


The first Conservatory at the White House – and a "garden-related" scandal


The construction of the White House mansion, begun in1792, was completed by 1800 but it was not until the 15th President, James Buchanan, was in office (1857-1861) that construction of the first Conservatory was authorised. It was a wooden structure with a glass roof and sides, being just one room with green painted tables filled with potted plants and flowers (as can be seen in the painting above). It was just 12ft away from the White House itself connected by a glass-enclosed passageway, while the nearby Potomac River provided a stable water supply.


Originally open to the public, it quickly became a private space for the 'first family' and their guests, as the visiting public continually made a nuisance of themselves by picking the flowers!


The enlarged White House Glasshouses c.1858. Courtesy Library of Congress

By the time Abraham Lincoln became President in 1861, the Conservatory had been enlarged. Apparently he seldom visited, although it is recorded that he grew [or at least his Head Gardener grew] lemons and oranges, often giving them as gifts to visiting dignitaries.


Oranges still being grown in the White House glasshouses in 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress


Although now a private space, the Conservatory was used to entertain select guests to the White House, including a delegation from Native American tribes during the civil war, as can be seen in the wonderful photograph below.


Photograph of the Southern Plains Delegation of Native Americans inside the White House Conservatory taken during the Civil War by Matthew B. Brady, 1863


President Lincoln's wife loved the Conservatory, and is said to have walked in it daily – and wrote "we have the most beautiful flowers and grounds imaginable". Mrs. Lincoln personally chose fresh flowers and tropical plants to decorate the White House, and also sent bouquets as gifts. One recipient recorded that "the 'bouquet man'... would take a perfect flower, rose, cape jasmine or Camellia and with his assistant tying the short-stemmed flowers" build-up a bouquet the size and shape of a cabbage "with an edging of forget-me-nots or delicate ferns". Interesting reference here to a 'bouquet man' as later First Lady, Mrs. Hayes, employed five 'bouquet makers' to make custom arrangements and bouquets – recorded as being the first official White House florists.


Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882). Courtesy Library of Congress

Unfortunately, the White House gardens and Conservatory were also the source of some scandal – as people began to notice the close relationship between the Head Gardener, John Watt, and Mrs. Lincoln. Watt, a Scot by birth, was by all accounts a talented gardener and had worked at the White House since 1852 under the previous two Presidents (at the White House 1852-1862). But he was also a dishonest one.


When Lincoln took office, Watt quickly ingratiated himself to Mrs. Lincoln, often supporting her expensive shopping habits by inflating garden-related bills to provide her with extra money to spend on redecorating the White House, and buying crystal and china. Although Mrs. Lincoln did try to protect him from accusations of dishonesty, Watt remained a thorn in the side of the Lincolns for some time, even attempting to blackmail them at one point [somewhat different behaviour than that of the Victorian gardeners I usually write about!]. However, he escaped imprisonment and ended up working for the US Agriculture Division, leaving the White House's employ in 1862.


Poor Mrs. Lincoln came to a sadder end. Modern commentators think that she probably suffered from what we now call bipolar disorder, which may have accounted for her excessive spending. After President Lincoln's assassination, she returned to Chicago to live with her sons, who eventually had her institutionalised due to her increasingly erratic behaviour. Mrs. Lincoln was eventually released into the care of her sister, and although she travelled to Europe for a few years, spent her last years with her.


A New Conservatory


Unfortunately, the White House's wooden Conservatory burnt down in 1867, but under President Ulysses S. Grant (in office 1869-1877), it was replaced by an iron and glass building twice as large. Over the next few decades, additional buildings were added allowing not only the usual plants to be kept, but also imported ferns, flowers and fruits, and exotic flora. There were also rose houses, a camellia house, geranium house, a 'grapery', orchid houses, a house for bedding plants, and a propagating house.


'White House Orchids’, photograph taken between 1889 and 1906 by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Courtesy Library of Congress


The wedding ceremony of Ellen ‘Nellie’ Grant and Algernon Sartoris at the White House, 21st May, 1874. Hand-coloured wood engraving from 'Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper'

When President Grant’s daughter, Nellie, married Englishman, Algernon Sartoris, at the White House in May 1874, the lavish wedding was recorded in the world's press. The Conservatory gardeners were tasked with growing massive amounts of plants and flowers to decorate the White House, and it's recorded that the walls and staircases were twined with lilies, tuberoses and spiraea. White orchids and orange blossoms were specially sent up by rail from Florida for the bride’s tiara.


One observer described “a beautiful marriage bell suspended over the bride’s head”, as can be seen in this image, made up of pink roses – presumably from one of the White House rose houses, while along the walls, palms and other plants were artistically placed around the room.



Next up of particular interest is Lucy Hayes, wife of President Hayes (in office 1877-1881) who claimed that after every formal White House dinner, dessert was followed by a guided tour through the Conservatory. And unlike many other [and future] First Ladies, Mrs. Hayes apparently preferred to enlarge the glasshouses than redecorate the White House.


'Lucy Hayes poses with her children in the White House Conservatory’, c.1879

For example, the billiard room, which connected the house to the glasshouses, was consigned to the basement and the room was converted into a greenhouse. And, just as Mrs. Lincoln had before her, Mrs. Hayes used flowers from the glasshouses to decorate the White House and send out bouquets. It's estimated that under the Hayes the upkeep of the glasshouses made up a fourth of White House expenditure.


However, Mrs. Hayes's main stamp on the White House was a dinner service she commissioned [another favourite activity for some First Ladies] featuring the flora and fauna of America, pieces of which can be seen in museums today. The 562 piece porcelain service was made in 1879; the estimated cost for the service was originally US$2,996 – later revised to $3,120. However, the rather avant-garde designs were not to everyone's taste. As well as flowers, the service also depicted game animals such as deer in a forest and wild geese in flight, causing one guest to comment that it was hard to eat soup calmly with a coyote springing from behind a pine tree in the bowl!


Examples from the Hayes dinner service


By the time Benjamin Harrison became President in 1889 (in office 1889-93), the White House was in need of total renovation and modernisation, and it was his wife, Caroline, who undertook some of the work – often overseeing it personally, and even consulting Thomas Edison about installing electricity. Together with an architect, Mrs. Harrison also drew up plans to completely reconstruct the White House – see plan below, but this was rejected by Congress as too expensive. However, she did successfully update and modernise the White House with the funds they were willing to allocate.


Architect Frederick D. Owen’s proposed plan to expand the White House c.1889


'First Lady Caroline Harrison’s portrait by Adolphe Yvon c.1880 reveals her taste in colour and love of flowers'. She also liked to paint images of the camellias and orchids in the White House Conservatory onto china

Amongst her many talents, Mrs. Harrison was also a gifted amateur artist and continued to produce watercolours during her time as First Lady [do read the Wikipedia entry about this interesting and underrated First Lady when you have a minute].


During her time at the White House, Mrs. Harrison introduced the use of orchids as the official decoration at state receptions, and it was said that under her influence the glasshouses "had never been more beautiful or bountiful". Unfortunately, she died from TB in 1892, only the second First Lady to die 'in office'.


'A White House Orchid' by Caroline Harrison, 1892. Courtesy Library of Congress


Although the proposed reconstruction of the White House was rejected, and the suggested "glass-enclosed palm gardens, plant conservatories, and lily pond" did not materialise, by 1889 the glasshouses at the White House had reached their ultimate extent, as can be seen below.


'Exterior views of the glasshouses from the south-west c.1889 when they had reached their ultimate extent'. Courtesy Library of Congress


‘Lilies and Chrysanthemums in the White House Conservatory', c.1896. By the American Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy Library of Congress


Stereographs of the White House


As mentioned, there are many photographs of the White House glasshouses available, many on-line courtesy of the Library of Congress. There is also a collection of stereographs gathered together by New Yorker, Robert N. Dennis [see Note 1], which include many of the White House taken during the late 1890’s and the early years of the 20th century. These are now held by the New York Public Library [and also available on-line], and whilst most are interior and exterior views of the White House, some do feature the Conservatory and various greenhouses – and some have been coloured.


The one below for example, titled ‘Potted Azaleas in the White House Conservatory’ c.1898, is accompanied by a printed note of which this is an extract: “In the course of the last few years much has been done to make the residence of the president of the greatest republic on earth worthy of its destination”. And it goes on to say that on one side of the building “extends the large conservatory which is kept up at the expense of the government, and is a perfect bower of beauty. An experienced gardener with a staff of assistants superintends the conservatory, where at all times of the year an abundance of beautiful roses, orchids and other favourite children of flora are displayed in their seasons”.


‘Potted Azaleas in the White House Conservatory’ c.1898, Coloured stereograph from the Robert N. Dennis collection. Courtesy New York Public Library


The White House Gardeners


There's an interesting on-line article from 2020, 'The Gardeners who planted for U.S. Presidents' [see Note 2 for link] which is worth a read. It details the 9 Head Gardeners at the White House during the years 1817 to 1931: 4 were Scots, 2 English, one Irish, one French and one Swiss. None are described as 'American', most being relatively recent immigrants. With the exception of the dishonest Scott, James Watt, they seem to have been professional and successful gardeners – 3 of them going on to establish garden centres after leaving the White House, and one establishing a floristry and landscape design business.


As well as maintaining the displays in the numerous glasshouses, the gardening staff also had the gardens and grounds of the White House to manage. Probably quite a time-consuming job, as can be seen from the amount of seasonal 'bedding' in the photograph below.


‘President’s Mansion, Washington, D.C., USA’. Stereograph c.1870-1899, showing carpet bedding displays in front of the White House. Courtesy Library of Congress


The Glasshouses Last Years


In 1901, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt became President (in office 1901-1909) with his second wife, Edith, as First Lady. Both the President and his wife loved orchids, and there's a lovely coloured postcard (below) of Mrs. Roosevelt's orchid collection.


Coloured postcard titled ‘Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt’s Orchid Collection, White House Conservatory, Washington, D.C.’, issued 1907-1908. Courtesy New York Public Library

Official portrait of First Lady Edith Roosevelt by Theobald Chartran, 1902

When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1901, the Conservatory had spawned so many additions that the mansion’s west terrace was, according to the 2005 book, The President’s House 1800 to the Present: The Secrets and History of the World’s Most Famous Home, "a veritable village of glass houses, each in a different size, shape, and styles”. The White House was also badly in need of another renovation and expansion, so something had to be done.


President Roosevelt’s dinner for Prince Henry in the East Room of the White House, 1902. Stereograph, courtesy Library of Congress. An example of how plants and flowers from the glasshouses were used as decoration at official dinners


This was the beginning of the end for the White House glasshouses – as the new century also brought with it new ideas about separating the President's working and family life, and providing better facilities for state visits and guest accommodation. Architect Charles McKim and others were called in to restore the neo-classical splendour of the Presidential residence, as well as enlarging the living quarters to house the large Roosevelt family and the President's collection of assorted animals.


'Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., with Eli Yale, a hyacinth macaw, in the White House Conservatory'. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress – and, right, one end of the White House Conservatory, photograph c.1902


Executive office space took precedence over the Conservatory and the greenhouses – after all, in the modern age plants and flowers could readily be supplied from elsewhere. They had to go.


Mrs. Roosevelt was apparently reluctant to see them demolished. She finally agreed as the space was desperately needed, but on the condition that a few of the more attractive greenhouses were moved elsewhere [I've not found out where to], and a small greenhouse was built in another part of the grounds presumably for use by the gardeners. I've read that most of the exotic plants "became the nucleus of a botanical garden in Washington" – so perhaps they were moved to the existing botanic garden which had a large conservatory which had opened in 1850. This was expanded in 1867 – coincidentally, the same year as the White House Conservatory burnt down and the new one commissioned. In any event, in 1903, the White House glasshouses were demolished to make way for what is known today as 'the West Wing'.


However, Mrs. Roosevelt was not done with gardening. She called on former White House Head Gardener, Henry Pfister (at the White House 1877-1902), to assist in designing a ‘colonial’ garden on the west side of the White House where one of the demolished ‘rose houses’ had once stood – and she later added another on the east side. These were used as a venue for spring garden parties.


Henry Pfister watering cinerarias in the White House greenhouses. Date unknown


The photograph below shows the colonial garden with paisley-shaped flower beds framed by low boxwood with old-fashioned flowers, daisies, and wildflowers that Mrs. Roosevelt and her friends gathered on walks in the country.


Mrs. Roosevelt’s ‘Colonial’ Garden, c.1903. Courtesy Abby Gunn Baker Papers, The White House

As one White House history website puts it "the colonial garden was a private place to sit and read, walk, and look down upon from the White House dining room windows", while Mrs. Roosevelt's attention and input into this garden "qualifies her as the first gardener amongst the First Ladies".


However, the west colonial garden was not to last, as President Woodrow Wilson’s wife (in office 1913-1921), Ellen, was another First Lady with a passion for plants and a good eye for garden design, and replaced it with the now famed White House Rose Garden in 1913.


The southwest rose garden that replaced Mrs. Hayes' west colonial garden. Photographed in 1921 by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Courtesy Library of Congress


Conclusion


Although the first Conservatory and subsequent greenhouses at the White House were only in existence for some 45 years, they are, it seems to me, intrinsically linked to the succession of First Ladies who, in keeping with the social norms of the period, spent some of their time in the womanly pursuits of nature and flowers, while also being involved with the reordering of the White House itself in terms of redecoration. During this period there wasn't an army of 'staffers' on hand to assist – Mrs. Roosevelt being the first to hire a social secretary to aid a First Lady.


Alice Roosevelt in the White House Conservatory’ [Edith Roosevelt's step-daughter]. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress

Despite their other talents, many were seen just as an adjunct to their husbands, and a hostess for White House guests and visiting dignitaries – although if you read their Wikipedia entries, many were much more than that. Many also have interesting back stories, and I'm particularly impressed with the talented Caroline Harrison, wife of the 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison.


Many of these First Ladies – and often their husbands and families too, seemed to consider the glasshouses at the White House as a source of escape and solace [as well as for an occasional spot of gardening], and the Conservatory as a relaxing and perhaps more informal place to entertain and get business done.


Today the famed White House Rose Garden seems to be something of a replacement for this, often being the focus of announcements, events, and entertaining – and, sometimes, even controversy. In August 2020, First Lady Mrs. Trump commissioned a renovation of the garden which some observers branded “sterile… and devoid of any joy”, while some thought it “long overdue” due to poor drainage, rose die-off, and box blight. You can never please everyone.


If current trends continue, perhaps one day in the future, when the grounds of the White House have become a wild flower meadow and the gardens 'rewilded', a First Lady will manage to squeeze in a new conservatory...


The White House Conservatory, Washington, D.C., c.1900. Courtesy Library of Congress


View of the Rose Garden during the State Dinner for Australia’s Prime Minister, September 2019 at the White House. Official White House photo by Keegan Barber [public domain]



Notes:


1. Stereographs consist of two nearly identical photographs or photomechanical prints, paired to produce the illusion of a single three-dimensional image, usually viewed through a stereoscope.


2. For details of the White House Head Gardeners during this period, see link below:


References:


There are many on-line websites, articles, and blogs about the White House Conservatory and greenhouses. Here are just a few:


White House Historical Association – whitehousehistory.org

Heroes, Heroines, and History: White House Conservatory: Then and Now – hhhistory.com




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