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 One of the White House’s most human enclosures had been replaced by a severe geometrical space of right angles and straight lines, all converging on the Oval Office—the seat of national power.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.
But the White House is not a king’s palace, and a garden bespeaking absolute power was clearly unacceptable. And so, changes needed to be made: Trees were planted, adding a touch of natural beauty and obstructing lines of sight and power; an irregular curving path was laid out along the garden’s eastern end, leading to a very un-Versailles-like seating area, where the president and his guests can take their lunch. Along with the overflowing beds of brightly colored flowers, these touches made sure that the president’s private garden would never be mistaken for an absolute monarch’s domain.
Just as the Rose Garden’s open vistas are derived from French gardens, the elements introduced to constrain them draw on the rival English school of gardening. As far back as the 1700s, Englishmen alarmed by the ambitions of their neighbors across the channel adopted a style that was a political and well as aesthetic riposte to the pretensions of Versailles. In place of open vistas and straight lines, they enveloped their country houses with naturalistic landscapes of shady woods, bubbling streams, and winding paths. Neither lines of vision nor lines of power would flow uninterrupted in an English landscape, and those who wished to rule would do so with caution, never knowing what lay beyond the next bend in their path. If Le Nôtre’s creation spoke of unlimited royal power, those of his English counterpart, “Capability” Brown, warned of its limits, and the dangers of overreach.
The old Rose Garden was a masterful balance between the assertion of power, proper in the house of the chief executive, and its limitations, essential in a democracy. But all that is now gone. With trees uprooted, flower beds tamed, and straight pathways installed, restraint has been cast aside and the Rose Garden has been turned into Versailles in miniature. Every corner of the garden is now visible to the man in the Oval Office, all lines of sight lead to him, and all power flows from him.
We do not know whether Louis XIV ever uttered the famous words attributed to him, “L’état, c’est moi” (“the state is me”). But he didn’t have to: The magnificent garden created for him by Le Nôtre proclaimed it more eloquently than he could ever have. The new Rose Garden, reconstituted as an emblem of unrestricted power, will do no less for Donald Trump.
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