21 Fun Facts About the White House Gardens and Grounds

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Performers entertain for Halloween at the White House. Kristoffer Tripplaa/Getty Images News
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    White House Trivia: Who Did What and Where, Outdoors?

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    The White House. Uyen Le/Photodisc/Getty Images

    We've heard interesting facts and trivia about the presidents, their families, and the White House. But what about the White House grounds, or more specifically, the swimming pools, patios, porches, secret retreats, and other features we may not know about? Not surprisingly, there have been a few memorable incidents and events that have occurred outdoors at the presidential park throughout the years.

    Like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the President's Park is one of the United States' Natio...MOREnal Parks

    • The White House and grounds occupy just over 18 acres in Washington DC at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
    • The general design, still used today, was designed in 1935 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. of the Olmsted Brothers firm, under commission from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
    • While John F. Kennedy was president, he commissioned Rachel Lambert Mellon to redesign the White House Rose Garden.
    • The grounds and garden crew consists of 13 regular staff. The chief horticulturist is on the executive residence staff. The other 12 are National Park Service staff—3 forepersons, 8 gardeners, and 1 maintenance operator. Additional Park Service personnel can be called in for more infrequent work on trees, roads and trails, maintenance, and outdoor plumbing and electrical service.
    • Many of the White House National Park service members have been there for more than 35 years.

    Enjoy these 21 bits of information about the White House landscape, past and present. Facts are presented in random order.

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  • 02 of 22

    Who Had the Outdoor Swimming Pool Built?

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    President Ford swims laps while the press records his every move. Library of Congress

    President Gerald Ford was quite athletic and an avid swimmer. In 1975 an in-ground outdoor swimming pool was built on the White House grounds, near the tennis courts. President Ford tried to make swimming a daily habit, and even conducted press conferences while swimming laps in the pool. Ford's son Jack took scuba diving lessons in the pool; while later, young Amy Carter perfected her diving technique when her father, Jimmy Carter, was in office.

    The pool is located behind the West Wing,...MORE with a privacy screen of trees and the convenience of a pool house (cabana). It also has a hot tub/spa, although we're not sure if it's still the Grandee model installed during the Clinton administration.

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  • 03 of 22

    The Mystery of the Swimming Pool Beneath the Press Room

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    The indoor pool at the White House, ca 1933. FDR Library

    In 1933,  President Franklin D. Roosevelt had an indoor swimming pool built at the White House as therapy for his polio. funded partially by a campaign started by the New York Daily News.

    Located in the gallery between the White House and the West Wing offices in a former laundry area, the pool measured 50 feet by 15 feet and was 8 feet deep. Also enjoyed by other administrations, President Harry Truman often took mid-afternoon laps in the White House swimming pool while wearing his glasses....MORE President John F. Kennedy enjoyed after-lunch and evening swims, reportedly inviting staff or White House guests to join him. His father, Joseph Kennedy, commissioned a muralist to paint Caribbean sailboat scenes on three of the indoor pool walls.

    Nixon's Press Room

    President Nixon had the pool covered over to turn it into a press room. In July 2007, the basement that still has the intact pool walls was redesigned, along with the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room above it to accommodate all the miles of wires and cables for the electronic press. A trap door was replaced with a staircase that leads down to the basement.

    The tile sides of the FDR pool remain as part of the walls of the basement and have been signed by the press, celebrities, dignitaries, and of course, members of the administrations. Famous signatures include Bono, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, members of the band Styx, the Jonas Brothers, CNN's Anderson Cooper, Bill O'Reilly, Steelers' player Troy Polamalu, and former First Lady Laura Bush.

     

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  • 04 of 22

    Michelle Obama's White House Garden

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    Mrs..Obama helps school children in the White House garden. Photo courtesy of Let's Move

    Eleanor Roosevelt was the last White House resident to plant a vegetable garden; her early 1940s victory garden was only a bedroom-sized plot on the lawn planted to hopefully inspire the nation to follow suit.

    Memo to the New President: Lose the Lawn

    Even before Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States, a movement was underway for the new administration to dig up the lawn and plant another vegetable garden. By doing so, the new president would lead by example, with...MORE others across the country—and world—hopefully planting their own home gardens.

    When the Obamas moved into the White House in January 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama worked with White House Chef Sam Kass and White House Grounds Superintendent Dale Haney to get schoolchildren from throughout the U.S. involved in planting and harvesting the garden, along with cooking. This tied in with one of Mrs. Obama's chief causes: fitness and childhood obesity, which became the Let's Move campaign.

    Seeds From Monticello

    The White House garden kicked off with its first planting in March of 2009. Michelle Obama and Sam Kass worked with local school children to plant the first seeds, many of which were from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

    Jefferson was an avid gardener and architect, and when he retired to his neoclassical mansion at Monticello, he took up farming as one of his many pursuits. Many of the heirloom seeds are still available and some were used for the new White House garden. 

    "Thomas Jefferson, more than any one man, changed the way we eat in this country, and the way we grow food," said chef Sam Kass. He continued: "When his ambassadors would travel the world, he would request they bring back seeds. He was the first person to start seasonal growing, and that is something people are sort of coming back to now. People are thinking about using a diversity of crops and growing throughout the year."

    The Farm to Table Movement

    Tying in the garden with cooking and learning to eat healthy was a natural. "We wanted to encourage people to do more family meals," said Michelle Obama. "We found that we've been able to do that, and the message is that if the president of the United States can sit down with his family and have dinner, hopefully more families can find time to do the same.

    "The garden is really an important introduction to what I hope will be a new way that our  country thinks about food," Obama explained, adding, "That's the story of the garden. And it's been quite an amazing success, if I do say so myself."

    The Future of the Garden

    During the Obama administration, the 2,800-square-foot kitchen garden produced up to 2,000 pounds of fresh produce annually, which fed everyone from the presidential family and staff to local soup kitchens. 

    In late 2016, the National Park Foundation—which maintains the White House and the kitchen garden on the South Lawn—received a $2.5 million grant to oversee the garden through at least 2034. 

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  • 05 of 22

    Holidays at the White House

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    The Obamas greet trick-or-treaters at the White House. Mark Wilson/Staff/Getty Images

    The holidays are celebrated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in grand style, particularly Christmas and the annual Easter Egg Roll on the the South Lawn. During President Barack Obama's administration, the family entertained local school children and military families during holidays, including Halloween. Decorations and performers entertained guests on the lawn and portico, and the presidential family handed out candy and greeted costumed trick-or-treaters.

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  • 06 of 22

    Which President Swam Naked?

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    Archival photo of President Andrew Jackson. Library of Congress

    No, not the one you might think (we'll leave that up to you). That portrait of Andrew Jackson isn't there for decoration. Jacson, you'll recall, was the president who had the Orangery built and whose inaugural reception became a bacchanal on the lawn—apparently enjoyed early-morning swims au natural in the nearby Potomac River, followed by some weeding and digging around in the White House gardens.

    If he'd had an in- ground swimming pool built on the White House grounds, it would...MORE have saved him the jaunt down to the chilly waters of the Potomac. On the other hand, skinny-dipping may have been just what he needed to kick-off his day. Do you suppose he ever gathered a crowd during those early-morning dips?

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  • 07 of 22

    Play Time at the White House

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    The Roosevelt grandkids, Sistie and Buzzie Dall. Library of Congress

    The lawns of the White House may be bigger and grander than most residences, but that doesn't mean they haven't seen their share of good, old-fashioned fun. Children like to play on swings and slides, and a few have graced the White House grounds.

    • With frequent visits from their 13 grandchildren, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had swings, sandboxes, and slides built on the South Lawn.
    • In 1961, a swing set/jungle gym was installed on the west side of the South Lawn for Caroline and John F....MORE Kennedy, Jr.
    • When the Obamas moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009, First Daughters Malia and Sasha were thrilled to receive their first-ever swing set, situated on the South Lawn at the edge of the Rose Garden, within view of the Oval Office.
    • Before leaving the White House in January of 2017, the Obama family offered the swing set to First Son Barron Trump, who declined. The Obamas donated the set to the Jobs Have Priority Naylor Road Family Shelter in southeast Washington. Since he moved in officially in June of 2017, no telling how Barron Trump will explore the grounds.
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  • 08 of 22

    Hot Tubbing at the White House

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    Grandee Hot Tub - White House Hot Tub. Photo Courtesy of Hot Spring Hot Tubs

    In 1997, during President Bill Clinton's administration, an outdoor spa was installed next to the inground swimming pool. As reported in The New York Times, the above-ground tub, the "Grandee" model by the Watkins Manufacturing Corporation, had seven seats, held 500 gallons of water and had 25 adjustable jets. The hot tub was donated by Watkins as a gift and, as is routine, was processed through the National Park Service.

    "Every once in a while, there may be a photo taken in that...MORE product, and it may be a good thing for our business," Watkins president Steve Hammock told The Times. Hammock was pleased that the White House would use the tub, because Watkins had donated a hot tub during the Reagan years. "I don't know where that one ended up," he said.

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  • 09 of 22

    Wait - Another President Swam in the Raw?

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    President John Quincy Adams in 1840. Library of Congress

    In presidential lore, it's often mentioned that John Quincy Adams—not Andrew Jackson— swam in the nude. Well, Adams did too, but not intentionally.

    According to a passage in Adams' diary, on June 18, 1825, he and an aide went for a canoe ride in nearby Tiber Creek, near the Potomac. The canoe became waterlogged, and the two bailed and swam for shore. Their clothing was weighed down by the unexpected soak, so Adams stripped off his duds and gave them to his aide, who then went to get help....MORE In the meantime, Adams' son went swimming in the Tiber in search of his dad. When they met up, both went swimming and sat "...naked basking on the bank" until the aide returned with a carriage. Adams was simply thankful that "no injury befell our persons."

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  • 10 of 22

    Important Dates in the History of the White House Grounds

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    President Obama plays basketball with visitors. Chuck Kennedy/The White House

    The second president of the United States, John Adams, was the first president to move into the White House. On his second evening there, November 2, 1800, he wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail. "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it," he wrote. "May none but the wise men ever rule under this roof."

    The White House has experienced many changes throughout its long history. Among them:

    • 1824: South Portico is completed
    • 182...MORE9: North Portico is completed
    • 1833: Running water is installed
    • 1848: Natural gas lighting installed
    • 1891: Electric lighting installed
    • 1902: West Wing constructed
    • 1909: Oval Office (off the West Wing) built
    • 1913Rose garden created
    • 1933: Indoor swimming pool built
    • 1975: Outdoor in-ground swimming pool built
    • 1989: A horseshoe pitch is created beside the outdoor swimming pool. It's removed in 1993, then rebuilt in 2001.
    • 1991: A basketball half-court is built on the South Grounds
    • 1993: A jogging track is installed
    • 2009: The White House Kitchen Garden is created
    • 2009: President Obama has the White House tennis court adapted so it can be used for both tennis and basketball. Although there was the smaller half-court built in 1991, the adapted tennis court allows enough room for a full court game of basketball. 
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  • 11 of 22

    The Fence Jumpers of 2014

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    Security is tightened at the White House after two fence-jumping incidents in 2014. Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

    The year 2014 saw a record number of intruders jumping the White House fence in modern history.

    While not exactly "fun" facts, these incidents are newsworthy and significant because they reflected a possible failure of multiple layers of security at the White House compound and led to an investigation into and heightened security throughout the presidential park. Both of these incidents occurred within one month in the fall of 2014. These were the sixth and seventh White House...MORE fence-jumping incidents that year, for a total of 16 in the five-year period of 2009-2014.

    The First Incident

    Here's what happened: On September 19, 2014, a knife-wielding man, Omar Gonzalez, jumped the White House fence and ran across the North Lawn, bypassing a plainclothes surveillance team on duty outside the fence. An officer in a guard booth couldn't reach Gonzalez as he sprinted past, and the attack dog was not released, possibly because the handler felt by then there were too many officers pursuing Gonzalez and the dog could have attacked them, according to The Washington Post. Gonzalez entered the front door of the White House, and made it to the East Room before being tackled and apprehended by a counterassault agent. 

    The security breach led to scrutiny into Secret Service protocol at the White House. Secret Service Director Julia Pierson received much of the criticism and resigned in early October of 2014.

    And Another

    The second incident occurred October 22, 2014, when Dominic Adesanya, 23, scaled the double-layer of North Lawn security fences (a temporary extra fence was installed after the September 19th incident) and attempted to run across the lawn before quickly being attacked by security dogs. Video footage shows what appears to be the suspect kicking and punching two Secret Service dogs that were released on him. Adesanya, who was unarmed, was apprehended by agents and charged with several counts.

    In recent history, it has been a common occurrence for intruders to scale the fence around the White House Complex and enter the grounds. According to a White House security report, most of these "fence jumpers" have been pranksters; peaceful protesters; and harmless, mentally ill individuals.

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  • 12 of 22

    The Jonas Brothers Did What on the Pool Wall?

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    From left: Joe, Nick and Kevin, discuss filming a video at the White House. National Archives

    In August 2008, years before they went their separate ways, the then-popular boy band the Jonas Brothers showed up at the White House to attend a press conference about diabetes and record a public service announcement about National Parks. The teen idols, Nick (a diabetes patient), Joe and Kevin Jonas, left a permanent memento at the White House by autographing the abovementioned wall of the swimming pool that's below the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

    "There's other names up...MORE there that are just astounding, some of our favorite artists and politicians," Joe Jonas told CNN. "But it's going to be really cool to see that in 10 years, 20 years from now."

    Wonder if Joe Jonas checked out his signature when he and his brothers stopped by the White House on Inauguration Night in January of 2009? To refresh your memory, the Jonases performed a few of their hit songs at a welcome-to-the-White House slumber party for Sasha and Malia Obama and friends.

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  • 13 of 22

    Secret Passage to the Pool: No More Peeking From the West Wing

    White House Pool and Cabana
    White House Pool and Cabana.

    After the outdoor swimming pool was built in 1976, a pool cabana was added to provide swimmers with a place to shower and change their clothes. The cabana also serves double duty as a privacy screen for the pool, which could otherwise be seen from those inside the West Wing. It gets even better: an underground passage was created to allow the first family and guests to reach the cabana from the ground floor of the West Wing without going outside.

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    It's Solar, Baby

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    solar roof white house.

    To make the White House more efficient, in 2002, the outdoor swimming pool cabana was renovated—more windows were added, the roof was raised, and a solar array was installed on the roof. The solar thermal array uses water heated in pipes by the sun and provides hot water to the cabana. Two of the systems deliver thermal energy for hot water and pool and hot tub heating and one produces electricity directly from the sun with photovoltaics.

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  • 15 of 22

    Party Like It's 1829

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    President's Levee, or all Creation going to the White House / Robert Cruikshank fect. Robert Cruikshank/Library of Congress

    In simpler times, presidents would often open up the White House for public tours and receptions, where they would personally greet well-wishers on occasions like New Year's Day, the Fourth of July, and the Inaugural.

    Jackson's Wild Inaugural Party

    When a crowd of "callers" on President Andrew Jackson's Inauguration Day in 1829 swelled to 20,000, the leader had to make a quick exit to a local hotel. To appease the throngs, White House staff reportedly lured them out to the lawn...MORE by filling washtubs with oranges (perhaps from the Orangery? See No. 16) and whiskey. While the revelers celebrated with their makeshift cocktails on the lawn, staff closed the doors and mopped up the mud-tracked floors of the White House.

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  • 16 of 22

    The Orangery and Greenhouses

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    Greenhouses at the White House, circa 1890. Johnston, Frances Benjamin/Library of Congress

    In 1835, President Andrew Jackson—the one who enjoyed those crack-of-dawn swims in the Potomac and early-morning gardening—created the White House orangery, a type of greenhouse in which tropical fruit trees and flowers can be grown. Some 18 years later, during President Franklin Pierce's administration, Jackson's orangery was expanded into a greenhouse.

    In 1857, the orangery was torn down to accommodate a new wing for the Treasury Department. Another greenhouse, or conservatory...MORE (pictured, 1890), was built on the west side of the White House, next to the State Floor.

    In the 1870s and 1880s, the conservatory was expanded into a rambling iron-glass structure off the West Wing to provide an enclosed spring garden for White House residents to enjoy throughout the year.

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    Outdoor Weddings at the White House

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    President Nixon and his daughter, Tricia. Warren Leffler, Library of Congress

    On June 12, 1971, Tricia Nixon became the first and only president's daughter to be married in the Rose Garden, which was designed as an outdoor extension of the West Wing during Kennedy's presidency. She wed Edward Finch Cox.

    The only other outdoor White House wedding took place during the Clinton administration. On May 28, 1994, then-First Lady (and former Secretary of State) Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother, Anthony Rodham, married Nicole Boxer, daughter of Senator Barbara Boxer.

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    Jimmy Carter's Treehouse

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    Jimmy Carter shows a young guest the treehouse he built. Library of Congress

    The very versatile and handy President Jimmy Carter designed and built a treehouse on the grounds of the White House for his tween daughter, Amy. Not surprisingly, when Amy and her friends had sleepovers in the treehouse, Secret Service agents monitored the festivities from the ground.

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  • 19 of 22

    First Lady Barbara Bush's Afternoon Swims

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    George and Barbara Bush stand near their Texas pool in 1978. Dirck Halstead/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    First Lady Barbara Bush (that would be H.W.'s spouse) used to swim in the outdoor heated pool even on cold winter days, and would sometimes come back to the White House with icicles in her hair. She also reportedly once discovered an uninvited guest in the White House pool—​a rat (not sure if it was dead or alive). 

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  • 20 of 22

    Sheep on the White House Lawn

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    Sheep graze on the White House lawn in May of 1918. Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

    Sheep have grazed on the lawn of the White House during two presidential administrations: those of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. During World War I, President Wilson trimmed the White House budget substantially by allowing a flock of sheep to graze on the lawn instead of having it mowed.

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  • 21 of 22

    Presidential Gardeners

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    Vegetable garden at the White House. Angela N./Flickr

    Many presidents and their families have actively been involved in the planning and sometimes maintenance of the White House gardens, which have undergone many changes throughout the years.

    • George Washington bought the land where the White House now stands.
    • John Adams planned the first garden.
    • Thomas Jefferson ordered a redesign of the garden and grounds, which included groves of various trees.
    • James Monroe hired Charles Bizet, believed to be the first White House gardener.
    • John Quincy Adams hired...MORE John Ousley, who remained head gardener for 30 years.
    • President Andrew Jackson had the orangery (indoor garden) built; it was later torn down to make room for more interior space at the White House.
    • In honor of the nation's centennial, President Rutherford B. Hayes began the tradition of planting commemorative trees; more than three dozen remain.
    • First Lady Edith Roosevelt, wife of President Theodore Roosevelt, helped design a colonial garden in the early 1900s.
    • The colonial garden was replaced with a rose garden by First Lady Ellen Wilson in 1913, who commissioned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand to design the East Garden.
    • In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to redesign the gardens. 
    • President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy began the design for the Rose Garden, which was not completed until the following administration by First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who also designed a Children's Garden.
    • First Lady Michelle Obama helped design, plant, and maintain a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House in 2009.
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    The Annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House Lawn

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    Easter egg roll near the fountains. Library of Congress

    On Easter Monday—the day after Easter Sunday—thousands of Washingtonians gather on the South Lawn of the White House to enjoy the spring weather and a celebration with the first family. Festivities have changed throughout the years, but the idea remains the same: it's a free event and an opportunity to party, presidential style. In 2017, the crowd was down in size, but those in attendance were read children's stories by First Lady Melania Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Betsy DeVos, and Sean Spicer.