WASHINGTON — Melania Trump, the first lady, announced Monday a plan to renovate the White House Rose Garden, a signature showcase of power used by presidents for decades, as her husband enters a crucial stretch of his reelection effort.
The project, which includes electrical upgrades for television appearances, a new walkway and new flowers and shrubs, is meant to be an “act of expressing hope and optimism for the future,” according to remarks that Trump delivered to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House on Monday morning. “Our country has seen difficult times before, but the White House and the Rose Garden have always stood as a symbol of our strength, resilience and continuity.”
Trump’s husband has not exactly focused on those principles during his many appearances in the Rose Garden, repeatedly breaking norms on how presidents use the space as it has become his preferred venue for announcing executive actions, boasting about the economy and extending political battles.
Over the course of his term, President Donald Trump has ushered reporters into the garden in 40-degree weather to rail against Democratic leaders and announce an end to a record-length government shutdown. He has hosted gatherings with his fans, who have picked profanity-laced fights with journalists among the roses.
Lately, largely confined to the White House and struggling to respond to the dire economic and public health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has taken to delivering meandering news conferences in 90-degree heat. Aides say he believes the natural lighting favors his complexion.
Melania Trump’s project is taking place as President Trump is employing the so-called Rose Garden strategy, coined by political strategists to describe the tactics incumbent presidents use to bolster their campaign efforts: ceremonial signings, dedications, executive announcements and, yes, press availabilities in the Rose Garden. But with his campaign-rally-like appearances, Trump has pushed the boundaries further than his predecessors.
“It’s just such a traditional venue when a president wants to get national attention for something he’s doing or something he’s saying,” Lori Cox Han, who teaches political science at Chapman University in California and has written about how presidents use the Rose Garden, said in an interview. “There’s not a lot that’s been traditional about this presidency or about how we view the president or the first lady, but for Melania, this is one of those opportunities to be seen as a traditional first lady.”
Melania Trump’s project, which will be supported by the National Park Service and funded by private donations, according to the White House, began in earnest last year and should take three weeks to complete, an administration official said.
Updates to the electrical infrastructure will make it easier to televise the president. According to a landscape report submitted by the preservation committee and shared with The New York Times, the plan will also add two limestone walkways, one to the inner perimeter of the garden. The second, 85 feet long with a diamond pattern, will stretch from the Palm Room to the south grounds.
The plan will also replace crab apple trees with white rose shrubs and add new drainage systems. A new assortment of white “JFK” and pale pink “peace” roses will also be planted.
“In a way, the metaphor of openness and improved access became our overall plan concept,” Perry Guillot, the landscape architect overseeing the project, wrote in a memo summarizing the changes.
The half-acre Rose Garden has undergone several iterations since it was first introduced in 1913 by Ellen Axson Wilson, the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson, but most Americans associate it with a redesign that began in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy enlisted Rachel Lambert Mellon, a socialite and family friend, to assist Jacqueline Kennedy with revamping the garden.
“Such a project deserves the same museum standard of research and deliberation that is accorded the first- and second-floor public rooms of the nation’s ‘house,’ ” Leslie Bowman, a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, said in a statement, “and the committee was pleased to be invited to participate.”The renderings of Melania Trump’s project adhere closely to the design Jacqueline Kennedy unveiled more than half a century ago. Since the beginning of her time in the White House, Trump has channeled Kennedy’s legacy as first lady, including working with the White House Historical Association, an organization Kennedy founded in 1961. Stephanie Grisham, Trump’s press secretary, said in a statement that the historical significance of the Rose Garden “inspired the first lady to dedicate her time and effort into ensuring scholar and historic preservation went into every detail of the renovation.”
President Trump has been less subtle in his attempts to draw that comparison. “We have our own Jackie O.,” the president said on “Fox & Friends” last year, referring to the name Kennedy took when she remarried. “It’s called Melania, Melania T.”
Melania Trump, who studied architecture (though she did not receive her degree) and worked as a model, has spent some of her time in the White House focusing on aesthetic upgrades. Her child-focused initiative, Be Best, has been targeted by critics who say its anti-bullying efforts are undermined by her husband’s behavior, though in recent weeks she has distributed food boxes and Be Best-themed items to charities around Washington.She has updated several living areas and features of the White House grounds, including the bowling alley and the tennis pavilion. When she shared an update on construction of the tennis pavilion in March, Trump received criticism for promoting a design project as the American death toll from the coronavirus began to rise.
“I encourage everyone who chooses to be negative & question my work at the @WhiteHouse to take time and contribute something good & productive in their own communities. #BeBest,” Trump wrote on Twitter at the time. Weeks later, she was photographed wearing a mask, months before her husband would consent to wearing one on camera.Historians see the timing of her Rose Garden project as a way to protect her own legacy as the election draws nearer. Trump is credited by her husband for paying close attention to their media coverage, and the latest headlines show President Trump trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“One reading of this project is that maybe Melania Trump is sensing that she has a relatively brief time in the White House,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies. “And if she’s going to make her mark in the way Jackie Kennedy did in her brief time, a project of this sort would be appropriate.”